A playoff-caliber football team will not qualify for the state playoffs in the 5A Inland Empire League this season.
The conference shapes up as the most balanced in years.
Lake City, which qualified for the playoffs for a 13th straight year and captured the league championship last fall, returns most of its skill players, led by senior quarterback Mark Smyly.
Coeur d’Alene, which lost to LC in the regular season but bounced back to avenge the defeat and advance to the state semifinals, returns practically its entire team. The key hole CdA must fill is at QB. Junior Chad Chalich has been tabbed the starter.
Post Falls, which continues to close the gap on the traditional powers, returns its backfield led by senior quarterback Matt Lickfold, and the Trojans are seen by some as the preseason favorite after a solid summer camp.
Something will have to give.
And the way the playoff system is arranged in Idaho, just one 5A IEL team will remain after the first round since the league champ and runner-up must turn around and face off immediately.
That surviving team, though, could make a deep run in the playoffs.
In a poll of the four 5A coaches, Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls were tabbed with two first-place votes apiece. CdA received 18 points to 17 for Post Falls. LC was picked third with 13 and Lewiston was selected fourth with eight.
The coach who best summed up how tight and competitive the conference will be was LC coach Van Troxel.
“The one team that comes out of here has a shot at the state title,” Troxel said. “There’s not much difference one through three in our league.
“Three of the best five teams in the state are sitting within eight miles of each other.”
Post Falls coach Jeff Hinz said a three-way tie for first isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
“We could all beat Lewiston and then beat each other,” Hinz said.
Post Falls is the team still trying to prove itself at the 5A level. The last time the Trojans qualified for the state playoffs was as a 4A school in 2004.
The Trojans have shown promise in recent years. They’ve beaten CdA three straight seasons, but haven’t found a way to defeat LC.
This could be the break through year for PF.
“I feel good with this group,” Hinz said. “We’re going in the right direction. The next step is to get to the playoffs.”
CdA returns the most starters, 15, and features the most depth. The top skill player returning on offense is senior running back Zach Keiser, the league’s most valuable player last season.
But CdA coach Shawn Amos sees the league like the other coaches.
“The league is loaded,” Amos said. “Post Falls and Lake City will have very good teams. It is a shame that only one team out of our area will have a chance to play for a state title.”
One gets the sense that the IEL coaches have their sights set on the biggest prize.
Lewiston returns the least amount of experience, but has a seasoned veteran at quarterback, senior Beau Kerns, even if this is his first year as starter. He backed up Justin Podrabsky, who signed with the University of Idaho, the last two years.
“We have a lot of no names that haven’t had a chance to make a name for themselves,” Lewiston coach Emmett Dougherty said. “We’ll be in the mix. A lot of it depends on our offensive line. I think we have the guys.”
• In the 4A IEL, Sandpoint is a slight favorite despite graduating 26 seniors.
“We’re starting pretty much over,” Sandpoint coach Mike Mitchell said. “We think we can get this team into a competitive situation. We don’t expect us to be as solid from the start as we were last year. We’ve got a lot of work to do but I think we’ll develop into a good team.”
Moscow believes it will challenge Sandpoint.
“This is a senior group that’s stuck together,” Moscow coach John Sheaff said. “They’ve been getting better and better and spent a lot of time in the weigh troom.”
Lakeland has struggled the last two years, but coach Tim Kiefer is optimistic despite only having 22 varsity-ready players.
“They’re great kids, hard workers, fun to coach,” Kiefer said. “I can tell they want to turn things around for the better.”