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Sandpoint Plans To Go Whole Hog In State Title Game Fine Line, Ground Game Carry Hopes Against Eagle

Call them Hogs II. Or Hogs Lite.

The 1997 Sandpoint High football team’s offensive line isn’t as big, strong or menacing as the senior-laden Hogs who opened large holes for a record-shattering rushing attack last year.

Big and mean, though, doesn’t necessarily add up to better. At least that’s the way a rival coach sees it.

“Collectively, Sandpoint’s offensive line this year is the best I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Lewiston’s Nick Menegas said. “They’re all clones of each other. The left tackle (Dave Rust) and left guard (Pat Williams) are the best of them.”

Rust, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior, is the bridge between last year’s line and the group that will start Friday when Sandpoint (8-3) meets Eagle (8-3) in the State A-1 Division II championship game in Boise.

He started six of nine games last year at left tackle, but split playing time with a senior.

This season, he and Williams, a 5-10, 260-pound senior, have been the most consistent players on a line that took nearly half a season to gel.

A year ago, Sandpoint coach Satini Puailoa anticipated that graduation wouldn’t leave the cupboard bare.

“That’s because of the program; these guys are program guys. They’ve been around for four years,” said Puailoa, who’s been at Sandpoint just that long as head coach.

Depth afforded Puailoa the luxury of experimenting with several combinations. It also was beneficial when injuries forced a couple players to miss starts.

“We’ve started 10 different guys,” Puailoa said. “And we had 14 guys we identified as linemen at the start of the year.”

After four games, though, Puailoa decided it was time to declare a first unit heading into league play. Seniors Quinten Swartz (5-10, 195), Mike Dean (6-0, 215) and Alex Shelton (5-11, 195) settled in at center, right guard and right tackle, respectively.

Others who started at least one game include seniors Bart Cochran, John Sletager, John Cash and Spencer Ferguson and junior Mike Sleep.

“We didn’t have an established group coming into the season, but several players have stepped up their play because of the competition,” Rust said. “I was in that same situation last year. I know what it’s like to be battling for a spot.”

Williams has recorded the highest weekly grade (95.5 percent) of any lineman under Puailoa. The next highest belongs to Rust (90.8). No other lineman has scored in the 90s.

Rust, who carries a 4.0 grade-point average, is the youngest of eight children, five of whom are boys. All the Rust boys played sports. The oldest, John, was a scholarship linebacker at Washington State and Idaho. Tom, the fourth-oldest, started at linebacker in 1987, when Sandpoint played in its first state title game.

Dave Rust, who wants to be an orthopedic surgeon, considers Williams the best on a balanced line.

“He was all-camp at (the University of) Idaho,” Rust said. “Having him beside me has made my job so much easier. He’s a moving mountain.”

Said Williams: “We’re only as strong as our weakest link. I’ve just tried to keep my link strong.”

Williams dedicated the season to his late father, who died following a series of heart attacks one day after Sandpoint’s final game last year.

He wrote his father’s initials - HDW - in permanent ink just above his face mask and on his belt.

Williams also has continued a family tradition. His brother, Mike, a 1995 grad, was a two-year starter at the same position.

He’s had to play through pain, struggling with a lower back strain and missing back-to-back games with a strained knee. To top it off, he suffered slight concussions in the final two regular-season games, but continued to play, not realizing what had happened.

“It was like the start of the fourth quarter (against Post Falls) and I remember asking Kurt (Berkley) where the heck we were,” Williams said. “I guess Dave and I played well, but I don’t remember much about it.”

Puailoa avoids comparing Hogs I and Hogs II, acknowledging that both have their strengths. Rust, who has wallowed in the trenches with both lines, is more willing.

“At the start of the year, we were comparing ourselves to last year’s line; we all wanted to be as good as last year’s line,” Rust said. “Later in the season, I think we’ve surpassed (last year’s line). They were probably more athletic, but they weren’t as disciplined. The competition has pushed us this year.”

If the line plays up to ability Friday, Rust says Sandpoint will earn its first state title. And that would be a defining difference between the lines.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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