Leading up to their state championship appearance, the Cusick Panthers have hardly embodied perfection. Just three weeks prior to punching their tickets to the Tacoma Dome, the Panthers suffered a 54-6 loss at the hands of Almira/ Coulee-Hartline.
But what Cusick has lacked in perfection, it has more than made up for with a will to win. In the face of disaster these Panthers have risen past any of their predecessors to play for it all against Lummi at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Tacoma Dome.
After giving up 54 consecutive points in their previous encounter against ACH, the Panthers found redemption in their second go-round, thanks in large part to its senior leaders.
“They crushed us the first time we played them,” said senior Shem Norton, who rushed for 169 yards and two touchdowns in the 36-28 victory last Saturday. “We practiced for three weeks for these guys because we knew we’d be playing them again.”
Cusick’s desire to win and unwillingness to fail were on full display in the final quarter against the Warriors.
Facing a third-and-3 and with just less than five minutes left in the contest, Cusick senior quarterback Tyler Edwards took the snap and went to pitch the ball to his running back. Unknown to him, he said, the halfback ran into his own player at the snap and was no longer in the play.
Facing a fourth down and the prospect of the Warriors getting the ball back with just eight points separating the teams, Edwards went off script.
In the face of three ACH defenders, Edwards found receiver Ryan Sample streaking across the field and hit him for a 28-yard touchdown that gave the Panthers a 14-point lead with 4:41 left in the game.
“As soon as I saw him rolling out I thought, ‘That’s not in our playbook,’ ” coach Sonny Finley said. “I’ve been saying all year we’re the best broken-play team in the state.”
Those broken plays have only worked because of the efforts of players like Edwards and Norton, seniors who each have heavy-handed roles on the offense and defense.
Norton turned in a spectacular performance at running back against the Warriors, the first time all season he has played the position. At linebacker, he was responsible for shadowing ACH’s Derek Isaak, who had amassed more than 400 yards of offense the previous week.
In addition to playing under center – where he has led Cusick with 306 yards passing and eight touchdowns over the last two weeks – Edwards also starts at cornerback on defense and recorded an interception on ACH’s final drive to preserve the win.
“I feel that playmakers make plays and Tyler Edwards, Ryan Sample, Shem Norton and Donald Driver are all playmakers for us,” Finley said. “They’re our seniors and our leaders and I told them before we left the locker room, the seniors will take us to state.”
In the Blackhawks, Cusick will again find an opponent with a knack for scoring points. Earlier this season, Lummi put up 119 points against Wellpinit.
“Its the first time Cusick’s been to (Tacoma) ever,” Norton said. “We’ve been to the playoffs 17 times but never went to the Tacoma Dome.”
And with this group of seniors, the Panthers will be ready for anything.
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