MARYSVILLE — With a new quarterback making his first-ever varsity start, the Snohomish football team leaned heavily on running back Keegan Stich.
And the senior standout delivered with a massive performance.
Stich rushed for 293 yards and four touchdowns, carrying the visiting Panthers to a 38-22 non-league win over Marysville Pilchuck in the season opener for both teams Friday night at Quil Ceda Stadium.
It was the type of performance coaches and teammates have grown accustomed to seeing from Stich, a fourth-year varsity player who led Snohomish County with 2,095 yards rushing last season.
“Keegan’s Keegan,” Panthers coach Kai Smalley said. “The kids have been confident (knowing) they have a good ball carrier to hand the ball off to and kind of take some pressure off them.”
Stich showcased his unique blend of power, speed and agility throughout the night while averaging 10.5 yards per carry and rushing for touchdowns of 6, 78, 19 and 43 yards.
Stich’s big performance helped the Panthers overcome a shaky start from their offense, which lost the star duo of quarterback Brandon Jodock and receiver Josh Johnston to graduation. Snohomish fumbled three times on its first three possessions, including a turnover off a botched handoff exchange on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
The Panthers also struggled in the passing game, with junior quarterback Langdon Orgill completing just five passes and tossing three interceptions — including a pick-six — in his starting debut.
But Stich more than made up for it, accounting for 81.4 percent of the offense’s 360 total yards.
“Before the game,” Smalley said, “I told him, ‘Take what they give you. You don’t always have to make something out of nothing. We’ll take six yards, we’ll take eight yards — because it turns into those long runs.’ And I was very proud of how he was patient and didn’t get frustrated. (He) kept putting his nose in there and getting behind his blockers.”
Snohomish kept Pilchuck’s offense from scoring until the game’s final minute. The Tomahawks’ only two scores prior to that came on a fumble recovery and an interception return.
“The defense held up very strong, despite some turnovers (by our offense),” Smalley said.
Stich opened the game’s scoring with a 6-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Then in the opening minute of the second, Stich hurdled a defender and sprinted down the right sideline for a highlight-reel 78-yard touchdown that extended Snohomish’s lead to 14-0.
But after their early fumbling issues, the Panthers’ self-inflicted mistakes continued with a costly play later in the half.
Punting from its own 39-yard line, Snohomish snapped the ball well over the punter’s head. The ball rolled all the way into the end zone, where Pilchuck senior Devine Darden pounced on it for a touchdown that cut the Panthers’ lead to 14-7.
“We kind of slowed ourselves down with self-inflicted wounds,” Smalley said. “But those are all fixable.”
Any momentum the Tomahawks gained from that play was squelched during a crazy finish to the half.
With one second left and the ball on the Panthers’ 43-yard line, Pilchuck senior quarterback Kee-An Ballard rolled to his right while looking downfield toward the end zone. Then, after scrambling backward and to the left side of the field in an attempt to avoid defenders, Snohomish laid a fumble-forcing hit on Ballard.
Panthers senior linebacker Ben Kloes scooped up the loose ball and ran it back for a 48-yard touchdown, giving Snohomish a 21-7 halftime lead and all the momentum heading into the locker room.
“That’s exactly how we needed to finish the half,” Smalley said. “We let them back in and gave them an opportunity to play with us, and we came out and kind of finished strong with an emphasis.
“Kloes had a great scoop and score, and I don’t think you could’ve asked for that ball to bounce any better for him. But I think all of us were surprised by how fast he went at the end there. That was nice. That was a great way to finish a half.”
Stich extended the Panthers’ lead on a 4th-and-2 touchdown run early in the third quarter, breaking several tackles before bouncing outside to the left for a 19-yard score that made it 28-7.
Later in the third, Pilchuck linebacker Zion Botelho intercepted a wide-receiver screen pass and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown that cut the margin to 28-14. The Tomahawks then recovered a well-executed onside kick, but couldn’t capitalize and turned the ball over on downs.
Snohomish kicker Conner Smith made it a three-possession game early in the fourth quarter, hitting a 23-yard field goal that extended the lead to 31-14. Stich keyed the drive with a tackle-breaking 40-yard run.
Stich added another highlight-reel run later in the fourth, rushing up the middle and bouncing outside down the left sideline for a 43-yard touchdown that stretched the Panthers’ lead to 38-14.
Stich also had a mammoth performance last year against Pilchuck, rushing for 269 yards and four touchdowns in a 63-13 season-opening rout of the Tomahawks.
“Trying to contain Stich is not easy to do,” Pilchuck coach Brandon Carson said.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys playing,” Carson added. “The learning curve is pretty steep. Sophomores playing on Friday nights — it’s a lot different. We’ll get there offensively. We’ve just got to do a better job making plays, and I think that will come in time.”