The Saratoga Sun -

Panther football falls in first round of playoffs

Coach happy to make playoffs but desires more offseason commitment, deeper pool of players

 


The Saratoga Panthers football team traveled to Pinedale Friday to face off against the Hornets in the first round of playoffs, but met stiff resistance from the undefeated defending state championships from Sublette County. In the end, the Panthers ended their season with a disappointing 58-0 loss.

“Going into the game, we knew it was going to be a challenge and I pretty much asked the kids that we give them our best shot,” the team’s head coach, Kegan Willford, said. “Pine Bluffs is a very talented team, they’re the defending state champions. They have a lot going for them–a lot of momentum–and are undefeated.”

The team was also hosting its first home playoff game since 1949, and Wilford and the team expected a not-so-friendly crowd.

But a hostile crowd wasn’t responsible for the Panthers’ signature of the season; allowing opposing teams—whether at home or on the road—to develop momentum by taking a large and early lead.

For the second week in a row, the Panthers allowed the opposition to run back the opening kickoff for a touchdown, giving the Hornets an early lead to add to the advantages the team already had. It was a consistent issue with the Panthers throughout the season; they would allow their foes an early, often sizable lead, and would rely on defense to wear down the other team’s offense while their own came into fruition.

Quarter-by-quarter, the Hornets scored 21 points in the first quarter, 28 in the second, 3 points in the third, and 6 points in the last. The glut of points at the front of the game and the scarcity of points later on mimic most games this season.

“It’s kind of hard to recover from,” Willford said. “It’s not the way we wanted to end our season but that’s just the way it goes sometimes. We didn’t seem to be to be able to put a complete game together this season—that was a goal of ours—but it didn’t quite happen this year.”

Nevertheless, Willford said he is glad the team met one of its goals of the season by making it into the playoffs, even if the second goal of hosting a game fell by the wayside after the team lost its last two season games, failing to seize its own momentum when it came off a commanding home win against Wyoming Indian.

To harness the team’s strengths and move to the next level of being a post-season contender, Willford said the team needs more offseason commitment and a deeper pool of players. “Pretty much all the teams that are left, they have great offseason programs where their kids are in the weight room, they go to football camps and things like that–a big commitment,” Willford said. “I think in order for this program to get to the next level, we have to get more commitment with that sort of thing in the offseason.”

The team will also have to replace seven outgoing seniors this year. Even though a short roster is one of Willford’s main laments, the silver lining of that cloud is that so many of the 20 players he did have suited up for the season got in a lot of practice, and earned a lot of valuable experience, including playoff experience against top-tier teams.

“We have a lot of young kids that are freshmen and sophomores this year that got a lot of experience, kind of trial by fire, valuable experience along the way. And even this playoff loss, getting that experience can help them in the future, pretty much just knowing what to expect when you get to the postseason playoff and the caliber of the teams you could potentially face.”

Yet still, Willford wished for a higher turnout. There are a lot of students in Saratoga and Encampment that could be a boon to the team if they would turn up, he said, adding that every team the Panthers squared off against this season had more than 30 players suited up and on the field, with the exception of Wyoming Indian and Kemmerer.

The Hornets, the defending state champions who ended Saratoga’s season, had over 40 players on the roster on Friday’s game.

“I know there are so many other things going on, some kids work and some of them go out for other sports like cross country and you don’t want to take away from that athlete pool, but there’s a still a lot of kids that are not participating in anything and they could be a huge help,” Willford said.

Getting students to commit to offseason training is difficult, too, he acknowledged. “I know it’s a hard commitment; summertime is the kids’ chance to make some money, relax and have some fun, but at the same time if they want to get to the next level it’s going to take some commitment in the summertime.”

Even for want of a bigger team, and perhaps some more training time during the offseason with which to develop it into a team more like some of the heavy-hitters the Panthers face in their conference, Willford said he was proud of the team he had and the effort they put into the game, and he has strong hopes for the team’s future seasons, despite the loss of seven seniors this year and bringing up a relatively young team behind them.

“I’m very proud of the kids: They all came out and did the best that they could do,” Willford said. “They (the team’s seniors) were some pretty good leaders this year and the younger kids saw a lot of what these seniors did in games and, hopefully, will follow that example in the future.”

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