The Saratoga Sun -

Panthers football to taste postseason play

31-14 win against Wind River qualifies Panthers for playoffs

 

Max Miller

Max Schneider (#50) roars as the Panthers march off the field in a delirium of joy.

A poem was read, then a dozen yellow and purple balloons drifted away into the darkening Wyoming sky last Friday night. It was halftime during a Saratoga High School football game against the Wind River Cougars, and when the six Panther seniors walked out to center field to be honored with their families, they knew it could be their last appearance in pads.

In notching a 31-14 victory over Wind River, however, the Saratoga squad forestalled that final day by at least a week. The victory punched Saratoga's post-season ticket, sending the Panthers to the playoffs for the first time in any of the players' careers.

"It was kind of an emotional night," coach Kegan Willford said later, voice brimming with pride. The Panthers took the field fired-up, and that energy level was soon reflected on the scoreboard. Alex Ziegler struck first for Saratoga, rushing for a 41-yard touchdown in the first quarter. A 13-yard pass from quarterback Sam Schneider to Wyatt Cox, and two extra points tacked on Justin Bonner made the score 14-0 before the Cougars found the end zone themselves.

With 1:57 left in the first quarter, the Cougars quarterback found a wide receiver in the end zone with a 36-yard touchdown strike. The Wind River team failed to convert their two-point try, however, leveling the game 14-6 going into the second quarter.

The only scoring in the second quarter came off a 36-yard field goal from Saratoga's Justin Bonner making the game 17-6 Saratoga at half. On the day, Bonner's foot would generate seven points for Saratoga, with four points after touchdowns as well as the field goal.

After the half time ceremony, which had the crowd roaring in support of their seniors and the seniors' families, Wind River came out strong. In the third quarter, the Cougars added a 14-yard passing touchdown, followed by a two point conversion to draw them within three points, 17-14.

Willford described what came next as a turning point. The Panthers failed to do anything with their next possession and punted the ball to the Cougars, who then mounted a dominant drive.

That drive brought the Cougars to the Saratoga one-yard line, and on fourth down the Wind River team opted to go for the jugular instead of taking a chip-shot field goal to tie the game. They weren't counting on the strength of the Panthers' line, which stuffed a Cougars run for no-gain and gave Saratoga the ball back deep in their own territory.

With help from a few penalties, Schneider engineered a 99-yard touchdown drive spanning two quarters. The drive concluded with a 15-yard touchdown run from Morgan Rempel. Bonner tacked on the point after to make it 24-14.

Later in the fourth, Wyatt Cox would catch an 87 yard touchdown pass from Schneider to cement the Panther lead, but it was the 99-yard, minute-eating march down the field in the third and fourth quarters that truly broke the Cougars' backs.

(Schneider's) coming along really well," Willford said of his sophomore quarterback. Schneider finished the day 5 for 9 for 159 yards and two touchdowns, posting no fumbles or interceptions.

The Panthers didn't spend long relishing their victory, however. Over the weekend, Willford said the team studied film of Upton Sundance, their first opponent in the playoffs.

Upton Sundance is considered a premier contender in the Wyoming football world, boasting four former all-state athletes, a 14 game win-streak and a state championship title from 2015.

"They're pretty fast and use a pistol formation," Willford said. He said he will try to funnel the Sundance runners into the center of the field, defensively. On offense, Willford said the Panthers will use short slant and out routes to take advantage of the Sundance defensive backs, who tend to give up shorter yardage.

The Panthers will have five hours on the bus en route to their 5 p.m. Oct. 28 game in Upton. Willford said he's seen "some pretty hot and heated chess games on those long bus rides."

Maybe the Panthers will also think about everything they've accomplished this season, though-and everything they can yet do while they're still in pads.

 

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