By Mike Dunn 

Finishing strong

Season's struggles build improvements, bonds

 

Mike Dunn

Bradley Bifano, no. 33, knocks the ball loose early in the first quarter

If you asked the Saratoga Panthers football team to describe their season, they would probably point towards last Friday night's 53-12 win over the Wyoming Indian Chiefs.

They didn't play in front of thousands of fans. There was no trophy waiting for them at the end of the game. A door to the playoffs wasn't opening for them.

Instead, the game took place in Ethete, Wyo. in the shadows of the Wind River Mountains. They played in front of a modest audience, who trickled silently into the seemingly vacant stadium located one mile up the road from the Little Wind Casino.

The game was a microcosm of their season - improving with every snap, battling adversity, building for the future and fighting for their wins.

Maybe a pair 0-7 teams squaring off lacks the bombast of a championship but you couldn't tell that to the Saratoga Panthers football team last Friday. This game was their last chance - their last chance to show they were stronger than their winless record indicated.


The Little Victories

The Panthers came into the game with their guns blazing.

The opening kickoff, senior Seth Harrison broke several tackles returning it more than 80 yards for a touchdown. Wyoming Indian fumbled their snap on the next drive, which was recovered by Saratoga defensive lineman Zane Michelson in the end zone for his first career touchdown. Junior Thatcher Spiering returned an interception 35 yards for the touchdown on the next drive.

With 8:13 remaining in the first quarter, the Panthers were already up 21-0 - without a single offensive play.

The opening few minutes was a sigh of relief to the Panthers. The players were celebrating, the coaches were laughing into their headsets. The struggles of an entire season were seemingly wiped away early in the first quarter.

Week in and week out, the Saratoga Panthers found themselves on the wrong side of the score board. Their defense held on by a thread for a quarter or two, but their lack of depth eventually showed up around the third quarter.

The Panthers could not find consistency on offense, and it's awfully tough to score when you can't move the ball.

Per game, Saratoga's offense averaged 53.9 yards rushing, 34.1 passing and two turnovers. They allowed an average 308.9 yards of defense per game and had an overall season turnover ratio of -11.

Anyway you cut it, the numbers are less than stellar. But statistics were trivial to the Saratoga squad.

The Panthers were not practicing like a winless team. Monday through Thursday, you could find the winningest team in the state.

The "little victories" are what head coach Scott Bokelman has been stressing with every practice. They set goals for every practice and game: get five first downs, complete four passes, hold the opponent to 'X' amount of points.

The little victories kept the team motivated. Every week, they would achieve those goals and set the bar higher.

"It's about taking it one step at a time and getting better every day," Spiering said about the little victories. "If you really don't look at the wins, and you look at where this team started and how we finished, our team did take a lot of steps forward."

"It's not just about winning, it's about being motivated and playing hard," Bokelman said.

Attitude is infectious, and it was no different with the Saratoga Panthers. Morale stayed high throughout the season, the players and coaches agreed. Everyone, from the novice freshman on the team to the veteran seniors stayed positive.

"That's our job on the team," Spiering said, indicating to co-captain Kyle Bartlett. "We want to stay positive and keep everyone up."

The Panthers always looked for the positives. Bokelman said while a losing season is tough for any team, his players have to remember the purpose of playing the game is to have to have fun.

"Kids play because they want to have fun," he said. "Winning is way down the list, kids will play if they have fun."

A game of numbers

There is an old philosophy in high school sports which states on average, for every 20 students your school has, a team will have one solid athlete. The Panthers are no different in this regard; the top five or six players on their team can match up with any other 1A team's top six players in the state. When you play six-man football, like the Panthers did in 2013, you can win championships with a roster like that.

"If we were playing six-man this year, we could have competed and been pretty decent," Bokelman said. "We can come up with six [players] that can give us everything they have with every snap."

But the Panthers missed the cut for six-man this year.

In August of 2013, the Wyoming High School Activities Association (WHSAA) restructured the football classifications for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 season, forcing teams like Saratoga and Wyoming Indian to either play 11-man football or be disqualified from the playoffs in six-man football.

You don't have to look too far to find the difference an extra five players on the field make. Wyoming Indians and Saratoga combined for an 1-15 record after making the step up to 11-man. Saratoga went from the second largest with a six-man football team in 2013, to the sixth smallest school in the state with an 11-man team 2014.

The Panthers found success with the kinetic gameplay of six-man football last year, going 5-3 overall with a 3-3 conference record. Despite their high turnout for football this year (29 players in the program at the start of the season), the wall the Panthers ran into this season was filling in those extra five spots on the field.

"We haven't been able to come up with that 11. Even with the numbers we had, we had a lot of kids who had never played football before, they don't know what it's like to hit somebody," Bokelman said.

Bokelman said he and his staff contemplated staying with six-man football for this season, but considering everyone in their current backfield will graduate by the end of the 2015-16 season. Bokelman wanted to build an 11-man team around his star players.

"I don't know if it would have been any better going six-man this year and then going 11-man next year because we are losing our whole backfield," Bokelman said.

For veteran players, they had to adjust to both offenses in their career. Both Bartlett and Spiering played 11-man football in 2012 and 2014, and six-man in 2013.

Neither player looked at football any different.

To them, football is the same game, whether there are 12 players on the field or 22.

"Football is football no matter how you put it," Spieiring said. "With a transition like that, I just focus on the basics because it's going to be the same in both 11-man and six-man."

"You have to be more prepared for open-field running and tackling [with six-man]," Bartlett said. "But it's really not that challenging."

When the Panther offense took the field against Wyoming Indian, it was like they stepped back in time. They may have 11 players on the field now, but they took that six-man philosophy into their game against the Chiefs.

The offensive linemen were arms-length apart, the backfield ran no-huddle using a variation of outside sweeps, short passes and quick dives. The 14 members of the Wyoming Indian Chiefs could not keep up with the fast-paced Panther attack.

Early in the first half, the Saratoga offense scored on short yardage sweeps from Bartlett and Harrison.

Defensively Alex Zeigler picked up a fumble and returned it 33-yards for the touchdown. With 40 seconds left in the half, Harrison took a reverse 48 yards to the end zone.

At the end of the first half, 53-0 sure looked a lot like a six-man football score.

Building season

At halftime, the Panthers went into the end zone with wide smiles on their faces. They had a commanding lead- they had just scored more points in one half of football then they had in the previous seven games.

In the 15-minute break, the torch was passed from the older, more experienced members of the team to the younger players. Coaches put together a makeshift offense and defense full of backups and underclassmen, who took the field for the next half. The starters went from football players to cheerleaders.

The second-string Panthers held their own against Wyoming Indian, but turnovers prevented them from finding the end zone. The Chiefs ended up scoring twice in the second half; which was a phenomenal feat for the team who had only scored 7 points all season.

For many of the younger players, this was not the first time they had taken the field this season.

The Panthers were plagued by injuries and illnesses throughout the season. While the team suffered from losing their top players (the Panthers started five freshman in their 24-6 loss to Burlington), it paved the way for younger players to get their snaps in at the varsity level.

"We haven't had the same squad for any of the games," Bokelman said reflecting on the season "We've had to move kids around from position to position, and that's a challenge trying to teach kids a different position every week ... but it gives us, as coaches, an opportunity to see where they may be in the future."

"Now towards the end of the season, (the underclassmen) are figuring it out," Spiering said.

The coaching staff relied on their upperclassmen to be leaders on and off the field. Every week, the captains held a meeting between them and the underclassmen to talk as a team. Bartlett says he spent many practices helping the younger players with their techniques. Spiering sees this year as a building season, and he has been doing everything he can to encourage and help the underclassmen.

Bokelman believes his players can bounce back next season, but not without putting in the work.

"If you don't want to work, if you don't get in the weight room and get stronger and faster, we are going to be in the same boat next year," he said.

"God has plans for this team," Spiering said after the game. "I think He wanted this to be a rebuilding year. And think He's going to use this season to help us build for next year."

Brothers and family

When the fourth quarter's running clock hit zero, it marked a great ending of a disappointing season for the Panthers.

But for Bartlett, it marked the end of a career.

The elated celebrations with his teammates quickly turned into tears when Bokelman thanked his seniors for being leaders.

"It's really emotional," Bartlett said after the game while holding back his tears. "It bittersweet because we got the win, but it's definitely sad because this is my last game."

"The seniors really worked hard this year," Bokelman said. "And this game was a great reward for them."

A 1-7 season builds more than the character of football players - it builds future leaders. Bokelman doesn't continue to coach after 30 years because he wants to win state championships. He said coaches because of the impacts it has on the players later in life. Those who succeed in the worst seasons, Bokelman said often have the most successes later in life.

"Playing football when you are winning games is easy," Bokelman said. "That's tough when you are not winning ballgames. It's hard. But that's the way life is: you get knocked down, but you have to get back up."

The bonds Bartlett built with his team were only strengthened by the losing season. Every day, they battled and fought with little reward. Winning a game was fun, but as Bartlett's cleats stepped off the football field for the last time, he wasn't basking in the glow of the of the scoreboard. Instead he was embracing his teammates, and the sport that made them a family.

"Just playing every Friday with my brothers is what I am going to miss the most," Bartlett said. "Football is definitely a team sport, and these guys are my brothers and family."

 

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