Top-ranked Ricks loses heartbreaker

POCATELLO, Idaho — In a battle for the junior college national football championship between evenly matched opponents, the top-ranked Ricks College Vikings suffered the heartbreak, losing 22-18 to No. 2 Butler County Community College in the Real Dairy Bowl Dec. 4.

The Butler Grizzlies from Kansas came back after being down 18-15 late in the game to win in Idaho State University's Holt Arena. While the indoor stadium protected the players from the bitterly cold, snowy weather outside, the Vikings were stung in their first loss of an 11-game season. Butler finished the year 12-0 in National Junior College Athletic Association play.

Protecting their narrow lead with 7:07 left to play, the Vikings felt their fortunes soaring when a botched snap from center was scooped up by punter Mike Clark who scrambled away from Butler pursuers and booted the ball to inside the Grizzlies' 1-yard line. On the next play, Butler running back Rudi Johnson, the game's MVP, took a handoff deep in the end zone and was immediately surrounded by Ricks defenders. Somehow, he managed to slip out for a 2-yard gain.

A few plays later, the Vikings were stunned when Butler quarterback Josh Allen threw a pinpoint bomb to Damon Richardson who gathered in the pass for a 65-yard touchdown.

Then the Grizzlies defense crushed Ricks' efforts to mount its own comeback.

Many of the Ricks players were quite emotional after the tough loss as they tried to pick up the pieces of their shattered dreams of winning a national title. Some players tried to ease the pain by looking forward to the future. That meant different things to different players, such as Steve Later and Ryan Harris.

Later, a sophomore from Sandy, Utah, reported to Ricks in 1997, and played in a backup role as a freshman. Then, this season, he sparked the offense as a record-setting running back. He set a school record for touchdowns in a game with six against Phoenix on his way to tying the school record of 20 touchdowns in a season. He capped the year off with a 2-yard touchdown run and a run for a 2-point conversion in the championship game.

At a time when his credentials are likely to attract the attention of several major college football teams, Later, who turned 19 in September, has other plans. During an interview on the field after the game, he said, "I'm heading out on my mission here pretty soon. I'm really excited for that. It's the next big step in my life."

Stepping out of football for two years is really no big decision, he said. "I've looked forward to my mission ever since I was a kid. It's a heartbreaker today, but I'm looking forward to bigger and better things."

Whether those things include more college football is a choice that will have to wait. "We'll see what happens," he said. "I'm just taking it one step at a time and looking forward to my mission, trying to prepare and get ready to go."

On the other side of the coin, Ricks quarterback Ryan Harris went from high school in Preston, Idaho, to the England Bristol Mission before starting his college football career. Upon his return, he took over the starting job during the season and was named Ricks MVP in the Real Dairy Bowl. He completed 17 of 35 passes for 207 yards and ran for a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Vikings their 18-15 lead.

Immediately after the game, in the pain of the moment, he said: "We won a lot of games, but you always forget about those. This was what our goal was all season. That's the one goal we had in mind and we didn't meet it."

His future? "I still have another year at Ricks. I plan on coming back and giving it another shot."

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve attended the game and spoke highly of the Ricks football program. "There are about 60 on the team who are former missionaries," he pointed out. "That says something, doesn't it? They produce great football players up here who live the gospel and go on missions."

Ricks coach Ron Haun bemoaned letting Butler off the hook with a championship on the line, but was proud of his players and their character. He summed up: "Our kids played really hard and had a great year. They're a great bunch."

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