The Saratoga Sun -

Panthers lose to Grizzlies

Saratoga suffers slow start in game marred by trash talking


The Saratoga Panthers' final home game of the regular season turned into the team's final home game of the year Friday, with the team's loss against the Rocky Mountain Grizzlies of Bighorn County, 43-14.

The Panthers were plagued by the same, slow start blues that have dogged the team over the course of the season and yhat have allowed competitors to get early, often hard-to-surmount leads early on. But new to the field this time was an element of trash talk that brought athletes nearly to their wits' end, and referees very near the end of their proverbial ropes.

At one point, one referee was heard to warn a Grizzly player that continued direction of profanity and derogatory language toward opposing players would result in expulsion from the game. The same referee later warned Rocky Mountain's coaching staff that such behavior would have to be curtailed, or there would be repercussions.

"Oh, I plan on making it stop, I promise," the coach said as he left the field with his players at halftime.

"I hate pointing fingers, and I'm not saying our kids didn't say anything back, but sometimes when that kind of talk gets going it's hard to not say anything and just walk away," Kegan Willford, the Panthers' head coach said.

"We have not faced a team this year that has done that kind of talk throughout the game and I know it kind of threw a lot of kids for a loop as far as what they were being able to do on the field," he said. "I told the kids at halftime and the end of the game that we can't take any of that personal and we can't let that bother us and take us off our game, which I think it did a little."

Saratoga came into the game needing to win to keep their hopes alive of hosting a home playoff game, but that did not happen. The team got off to a slow start again, allowing the cantankerous Grizzlies to get out ahead of them 19-0 at the end of the first quarter.

As they have in the past, the Panthers came into the second half looking like a whole new team, doing their best to shut down scoring by the loutish Grizzlies of Bighorn County. The Panthers also managed to even the score a bit, putting 14 points on the board by the end.

But the team wasn't able to get enough energy to overcome the slow start they suffered in the first half.

"We definitively didn't play well, especially in the first half," Willford said. "And, when you don't play well when there's as much riding on the line as there was Friday, the outcome is not going to be that great and that's kind of the way it ended up."

The defense, for this season a tremendous saving grace for the team, performed well in the second half, but the team still needed to finish off opponents more authoritatively, Willford said.

The defense, he said, was a doing a good job of covering opposing players and was maintaining good field position, but the team lost a bit when it came to the fundamentals of defense. According to Willford, the team did not complete as many tackles as it should have, instead relying on swarming opposing players and hoping the pressure would trip them up.

"Sometimes that works," Willford said. "But there are kids out there who are talented and have good balance, we weren't wrapping up and bringing the guys to the ground."

The offense was stymied by a lack of rhythm and had been unable to overcome the momentum gained by the Grizzlies in the first half. Penalties, turnovers and bad snaps also took their toll on the Panthers this game, Willford said.

By the numbers, the two teams were surprisingly similar: While Rocky Mountain did nearly triple the number of rushing yards run by Panthers, 295-101, in other regards the teams seemed to be on par with one another. Reception and reception yards were similar enough as to be the same, as were interceptions, fumbles and time of possession.

The Panthers did outperform the bearish boys of Bighorn in one area, though; Rocky Mountain had 6 penalties for a loss of 53 yards compared to the Panthers' 2 penalties for a loss of 12. But Willford continues to stress that the team must overcome the slow starts.

"We're hoping to play a complete game this season, we just don't feel like we have completely," Willford said. "It's the same song and dance almost every week. We've tried different things to get faster starts and we're going to be on to different things this week against Wind River to get a faster start, we've got to catch that momentum somehow."

The team will be working on some new tactics to get out to a stronger start against Wind River this Friday, and will be practicing that this week. Wind River, he said, likely won't be an easy win.

The team has a record to rival Saratoga's, and is known as a running team. According to Willford, the team has six or seven strong running backs it can rely on to run the ball, making it hard for the defense to focus on and shut down a single runner.

Key for the upcoming game against Wind River will be to get back to fundamentals of defense and make more tackles, and to allow the offense to hit its stride with a rhythm and develop a strong momentum at get-go.

Dealing with the trash-talking from the Grizzlies Friday may not have been pleasant, Willford said, but it was a learning experience for the team, and one he hopes will make them stronger and better prepared for the final few weeks of the season.

The Panthers, he said, are well known around the state for being well-mannered guests and hosts, and has the sportsmanship medals to prove it. But dealing with poor behavior just comes with the territory sometimes.

"We don't want to be known with that kind of reputation and let another team drag us into that," Willford said. "It was hard for a lot of the kids, just something we really hadn't experienced this year, hopefully they'll be ready and they might expect that especially as we get into the playoffs, you never know what you might run into.

"We've got be ready for anything."

The team's final game of the regular season is on the road against Wind River 6 p.m. Friday. Playoffs, for which the Panthers have qualified, will begin Oct. 27.


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