High school football: Green Canyon stifles Park City to earn 4A championship berth

For Green Canyon, what happened on Friday night was a matter of two sides finally coming together for the first time this season.

The No. 8 Wolves lived on defense virtually the entire season before surviving an unexpected shootout in the 4A quarterfinals, but a 21-0 shutout win over No. 4 Park City in the 4A state semifinals on Thursday night suggested that the two sides look to finally be coming together at the best possible time.

With the win, the Wolves punched their first-ever ticket to a state championship since the school’s founding year in 2017.

Junior quarterback Payton Wilson completed 9 of 14 passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns. Both of his TD passes were long-range ones, the first from 40 yards and the second from 32. Wolves head coach JT Tauiliili said Wilson’s growing comfort in the Green Canyon offense has fueled a gradual rise in the team’s offensive capability.

“Obviously, this is my first year at quarterback, but I’ve always built a strong chemistry with (the team) from the start,” Wilson said. “We got into a slow start all through region play, not putting up the points that we expected, so I just kept believing in myself and in our coaches and all the players around us to keep playing better, and eventually, we were going to put up the points like we did tonight.”

The Wolves relied on a strong ground game as well to dictate the game flow, racking up 140 net yards even after Wilson lost 23 yards on the three sacks he took. Running back Eric Oates led all rushers in the game with 22 carries for 85 yards.

“Once we picked up the confidence in the run game, we felt we had the opportunity to be able to air it out at that point,” Tauliili said. “I think a lot of it, too, is Payton’s getting comfortable in the system and looking at plays the way we want him to, and he’s just made fantastic decisions.”

The Wolves defense came to play, forcing their third shutout of the season as they collected five tackles for loss and two sacks while also recovering a fumble.

Being a defensive-minded team with an early lead sure helped. The only points of the first half came on the first drive of the game as Wilson found his best friend, junior receiver Shandon Thain, for a 40-yard touchdown, reeling in the catch around the 20 and running it in from the sideline the rest of the way. Thain only had 156 receiving yards and a single TD catch prior to the matchup.

“There was nothing than coming out and just throwing that first punch, especially because that’s my best friend out there catching that touchdown pass,” Wilson said. “It couldn’t have been better for me.”

With the early lead, Green Canyon not only gained the ability to play loose on offense the rest of the game, relying on its defense to stay ahead, but it also forced the Park City offense into a reluctant pass-first approach.

“It was huge because we really felt offensively like we had to put points on the board to make Park City uncomfortable in their offense,” Tauliili said. “We knew that their goal would be to try to run it down our throats, so we knew that, obviously, defense would have to step up, but offense needed to put points up on the board to take them out of that.”

The plan worked. Not only did Green Canyon hold the Miners to just 93 total rushing yards, but quarterback Lincoln Jackson struggled the whole game, completing 8 of 18 throws for just 60 yards while being sacked twice.

Green Canyon took a 7-0 lead into halftime, and once the third quarter started, everything else started going the way of the Wolves, too. After the offense went 3-and-out on its first drive of the second half, some execution errors led to a muffed catch by Park City on the punt, which the Wolves recovered at the Miners’ 26-yard line.

A few plays later, Wilson kept the ball on a run up the right and shed multiple tacklers for an impressive 9-yard TD run, giving the Wolves a 14-point lead that frankly felt like a 40-point one.

Just for good measure, on Green Canyon’s next drive, Wilson struck again, reading a defensive blitz perfectly to find the Wolves go-to athlete Dewey Egan uncovered in the middle of the field for a 32-yard TD pass.

The Wolves will be the “away team” against either No. 2 Crimson Cliffs or No. 6 Ridgeline for the 4A championship next Friday.

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