Homecoming heartbreaker

Panthers fall just short in last minute push, lose 28-26

 

Max Miller

Left, Alex Ziegler digests the last Wrangler TD before going back to work.

In the parking lot, horns blared. In the stands, fans' voices arched into a fevered crescendo. From the announcer's booth, Teense Willford's normally rolling, easy-going speech took on a quiver of excitement and anticipation. Unfortunately for the Panthers over Homecoming weekend, none of it was quite enough.

With about 150 in attendance Sept. 30, Saratoga lost a hard-fought battle with the Shoshoni Wranglers 28-26, leaving the Panthers with a 1-1 conference record.

"Those ones are always tough, but I'm really proud of how our kids played," Panthers coach Kegan Willford said Monday. Throughout the game, Willford's team never held a lead, but the Panthers spent 48 minutes nipping at the Wranglers' heels, never conceding defeat or letting their shoulders slump.

A less-disciplined unit could have easily imploded at several critical junctures. Whenever the Saratoga offense stumbled though, the defense knuckled down, and when Shoshoni found the end zone against Saratoga's defenders, the Panther offense responded in kind. "It was really a total team effort," Willford said.


The scoring kicked off in the first quarter when a Shoshoni back ran 27 yards for a touchdown. The Shoshoni quarterback barreled into the end zone for a two-point conversion to make it 8-0. The next possession, Saratoga quarterback Sam Schneider responded by whistling a 23-yard touchdown pass into Wyatt Cox's slant route and the game was on.

In the second quarter, Shoshoni opened up scoring again with a three-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-6 before Saratoga struck back. Later in the second, Saratoga's running back Morgan Rempel rushed for a 7 yard touchdown to make it 14-12. Rempel would finish the day with 22 carries for 93 yards.

The scoring wasn't done for the quarter though. The Wranglers added on a 29-yard rushing touchdown, and their 2-point conversion left the score 22-12 at half.

Saratoga received the kickoff to begin the third quarter and put together a strong series that put them within striking distance of the end zone. Unfortunately, Shoshoni picked off a pass from quarterback Sam Schneider, then put together a dominating drive of their own.

It seemed that the Wranglers were about to make it at least 28-12, when Shoshoni fumbled the football deep in Panther territory and Saratoga's Justin Bonner recovered the loose ball before being buried in a tangle of limbs, helmets and pads. On a different play, Bonner later sustained a shoulder injury that will sideline him for a few practices as he heals.

A couple plays after Bonner's fumble recovery, Saratoga took advantage of the turnover when Schneider hit Alex Ziegler with a 37-yard bomb to make it 22-18 Shoshoni's advantage. A 2-point conversion brought the Panthers to within a field goal, 22-20.

Shoshoni wasn't done though. The Wranglers replied with a 36-yard touchdown pass of their own near the end of the quarter. Critically, the Panthers defense stepped up to squelch the Wrangler's subsequent 2-point conversion, so the match remained a one-score 28-20 battle as the fourth quarter began.

The fourth was a grinding, smash-mouth affair, with both defenses standing strong and forcing punts. Finally, with about three minutes left in the half, Schneider found the end zone, but a holding call negated that score. Schneider threw another apparent touchdown on the next play, but yet another penalty nullified the TD and pushed the Panthers still farther from the end zone.

With a little over two minutes left in the game, the third time was the charm. Ziegler ran for 37 yards and his second touchdown, bringing the score to 28-26, and leaving Ziegler with another impressive day: 139 rushing yards and 1 TD on 21 carries in addition to his 47 yards and 1 TD on two receptions.

In a heartbeat, the crowd went from enraged over the recalled touchdowns to ecstatic over the Cats' new life. Sadly for the boosters, the comeback was not to be. Saratoga couldn't punch through their 2-point conversion, then failed to recovery an attempted onside kick. The Wranglers knelt the ball to a hair's breadth victory as time expired.

Though Willford said he was very pleased with how the whole team played Friday, he reserved special praise for Saratoga's offensive line. "They were blocking till the whistle blew all game long," he said of the unit.

"Over the last two-and-a-half games we've gained a lot of confidence," Willford said. He thinks the Panthers will carry that confidence into their next match up 4 p.m. Oct. 7 against Cokeville, in Cokeville. If that's the case, fans can expect quite a contest between the 1-1 conference rivals.

Max Miller

Bottom right, Sam Schneider turns the corner for a 4th quarter 1st down.

 

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