WOODS CROSS — The last time a Woods Cross High School football team reached the semifinal round of the state playoffs, the members of this year's tough, talented and together Wildcat team were far from being born yet.
But thanks to a powerful performance by junior running back Tomasi Giles and an absolutely stellar defensive effort, the Wildcats are headed for a semifinal showdown with defending 4A state champion Timpview following a 21-7 victory over Salem Hills here Friday afternoon.
It will mark the Woods Cross program's first state semifinal appearance since 1989.
Giles, a hard-running 6-foot-1, 210-pound locomotive who also starts on the Wildcats' defensive line, needs a nickname — something like "Tank," "Bam-Bam" or perhaps "Pile Driver" would seem appropriate. He ran for more than 100 yards and scored two touchdowns, often looking like a man among boys when he carried the ball and punished would-be tacklers.
"We've been working him all summer," Woods Cross coach Justin Spencer said of Giles. "And since this summer, he's been there. He plays so much on defense it's hard (to play him a lot on offense), because he's got asthma. So it's hard for him to play both sides of the ball.
"But I think I've been saying to a bunch of people, 'Watch for No. 47,' because when he gets a head of steam he's one of the strongest kids that I've ever met. And we saw that — he's running through tackles, he's breaking tackles, he's using his speed. It was great to see it. And I'm proud of him for doing the job when his name was called."
Giles' second touchdown, a 13-yard burst on the first play of the fourth quarter, was particularly impressive as he repeatedly shed defenders and carried four or five Salem Hills tacklers into the end zone with him after initially being hit probably 10 yards from pay dirt.
"I just carried the team on my back," Giles said, unintentionally referring at the same time to both his touchdowns that made it a two-score game as well as his role in the Woods Cross offense. "I do this all for my team.
"It feels great," he said of reaching the next week's semis. "We haven't been there for a long time, long time, so it's a great opportunity for us. Man, it's gonna be great. I believe we can do it."
Giles, who slammed into the end zone from two yards out to put Woods Cross ahead 14-7 with 3:34 remaining in the first half, said he felt from the beginning of the season that these Wildcats could go a long way this season.
"Oh, yes, of course, of course," he said of their capability to do great things. "I had full confidence in my team."
So did Spencer, the Woods Cross head coach.
"It's special, he said. "I knew we could. We talked about it. We work really hard and our kids work hard; they play well together, and I knew that we had the physical tools to be able to get to this point. But it really has come a long way. We've come a long way and hopefully we can just keep going. I'm very, very proud."
Woods Cross had plenty of heroes on this great day for the school's program.
Sophomore Braxton Gunther's first-quarter pass interception and subsequent return deep into Salem Hills territory set up the Wildcats' first touchdown, an 8-yard toss from Clay Kidman to Gavin Moore.
"I was just trying to help my team get the win, definitely," Gunther said of his game-changing pick. "I made a play; I was in the right spot."
And as for reaching the 4A semis, Gunther said he was "Oh, so stoked. This has been our team goal. Everyone said we weren't gonna make the playoffs. We were unranked before the season, but we've proved everyone wrong and we're going to Rice-Eccles. We were definitely the underdogs to everyone else, but we knew we could make it."
The Woods Cross defense, which starts nine juniors, feasted on a fumbled punt by the Skyhawks at the Salem Hills 17 to help set up Giles' first touchdown, while Sam Parson picked off a Salem Hills pass in the third period, and Xequille Harry and Mason Newton each came up with fourth-quarter interceptions that stopped Skyhawk drives.
With Kyle Easton, Jared Clark, Deion Saumalu and Giles taking turns coming up with big defensive plays throughout the game, there was no way the Wildcats (11-1) were going to let this one slip away.
"Our defense sets the tone for us and it's a special group," Spencer said. "It starts with the front. They know that if they do their job for three or four seconds that either the (opposing) quarterback's going to be sacked, hurried or thrown off balance or something. So they know that when a team is looking to throw the ball, they're gonna have opportunities because our front six get so much pressure.
"And that was the name of the game today — get pressure on the quarterback with a creative five-man, four-man rush, and then drop people into coverage and cut off those passing lanes. And we did it."
The lone score for Salem Hills (8-4) came on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Chad Peterson to Gunnar Gustin to tie it up 7-7 in the second quarter, but the Woods Cross defense came up with four interceptions that grounded the Skyhawks' offense the rest of the way.
"We thrive around our defense and today, credit to Salem Hills," Spencer said. "They battled; that was as physical a team as we've played in a long time. We thought Box Elder was going to be a physical team last week, and they were, but that's the kind of game we thought it was gonna be. This was not the kind of game we anticipated today, so credit to them in their game plan, their coaches and their players.
"Our offense, we challenged them to physically do the job to grind the clock and keep it out of (Salem Hills') hands so that they wouldn't be able to throw it down the field as much.
"We stubbed our toes in two drives that we needed to finish off, and then it wouldn't have been so close," Spencer said. "But I'm proud of the whole team because it was a really, really strong team effort."
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