The Saratoga Sun -

Saratoga plays tough in loss to Cokeville

Battle of the Panthers goes to undefeated team in cold weather football game

 

The wind whipped out of the west and the temperature dropped Friday as the Saratoga Panthers football team hosted the Panthers of Cokeville. For the Saratoga Panthers, the game would go cold and hard, just like the weather.

The team went into the game knowing that it was going to be a tough match. Saratoga-fresh off a couple resounding conference wins over the previous two weeks-came into the brawl of the Panthers knowing they were facing one of the best teams in the state, a team that is undefeated this season and one that thus far has defeated every opponent it faced by an average differential of 30 points.

"They're a great team-a great program. They're at an elite level-they really are," Kegan Willford, the Saratoga Panthers' head coach said. "They had 17 juniors and seniors suited up and those are really good years for Cokeville historically. You have a coach that has 22 state championships under his belt and It's pretty impressive to go up against a team like that."

Ultimately, Saratoga would give up the game 43-12, a 31-point deficit.

All of Cokeville's scoring came in the first half, echoing a common issue that Saratoga has seemed to suffer all season: a weak start which allows competitors to get an early jump. In the past, Saratoga relied heavily on defense to minimize losses while the offense came into its own later in the game.

During the last two games-which Saratoga won-the team got off to a weak start but was able to rally and shut down the other team's offense while ramping its own up, coming from behind to win games in a resounding fashion.

True to form, Saratoga rallied during halftime and came back to do a better job of shutting down the juggernaut from Lincoln County. The second half saw Saratoga step up defense to shut down Cokeville's non-stop scoring. The offense also turned up the heat and put 12 of its own on the board, closing the scoring gap.

"Even though the first half didn't go our way, we regrouped at halftime; the kids came out, they didn't give up they still played like they were capable of playing," Willford said. "We got several stops in the second half and scored a couple touchdowns. I was really happy that the kids didn't give up and just quit at halftime."

Willford attributes a lot to the defense, whom he said stepped up at half time to shut down Cokeville's scoring chances, and to bring a more intimidating physical presence on the field.

The wind and cold also took their toll. Wind gusts during the game were measured as high as 40 MPH, and the temperature with wind chill rapidly dropped into the 30s.

The wind made punting the ball difficult for the team facing to the west, with some punts coming up fewer than 15 yards. Cold temperatures also meant cold, painful hands and a harder ball which made it more difficult to catch. The end result was missed catches and several bad snaps.

Just by switching sides, Saratoga's punts went from under 20 yards to an impressive 80-yard punt by Sam Schneider during the second quarter when he had the wind to his back.

It was the first time this season the team had faced such miserable conditions, Willford said, adding that he has told the team it is now time for them to harden themselves off for the rest of season, as it likely won't be getting any warmer as it continues.

Next up, the Saratoga Panthers will host Rocky Mountain 5 p.m. Friday at Saratoga High School. The game is the Panthers' final home game of the regular season. The following week, the Panthers will be on the road to face Wind River before playoffs begin.

Willford said a goal of the team is to have a playoff game at home. To do that, the Panthers must beat both Rocky Mountain and Wind River.

"We need a lot of concentration and everyone healthy and at practice this week, Willford said. The Rocky Mountain game is huge."

"They're one of the teams we need to beat to keep up the hope of having a home playoff game."

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