Final four underdogs
No. 13 Delta ready to face defending state champion
It’s not what was expected — the No. 13 seed in the final four.
But that’s the spot Delta High School has earned with two upset wins in the Class 3A football playoffs.
“We like being the underdog,” said Marcus Garcia, Delta’s 280-pound offensive and defensive lineman. “We’ve been the underdogs since the playoffs started, so I think we can get the job done (on Saturday).”
The Panthers are in the semifinals with one huge offensive game and one huge defensive game after beating No. 4 Holy Family 42-41 in overtime and No. 12 Glenwood Springs 13-9.
Delta (9-3) stopped Glenwood on fourth down from the 2-yard line to secure the win last weekend.
It’s been a postseason of upsets, with sixth-seeded Coronado the highest seeded team still in the running for a state title. Coronado (11-1) plays No. 7 The Classical Academy (10-2) in the other semifinal game.
Delta’s semifinal matchup with Silver Creek, a Longmont school, will be its biggest challenge. Even though Silver Creek (9-2) is the No. 9 seed, the Raptors remain one of the most feared teams in the 3A playoffs.
The defending state champions are clicking at the right time.
Delta head coach Ben Johnson offers a scary critique of the team that is looking to make its third straight state title game. Last year, the Raptors went in as the 10th seed and won it all with a 32-15 upset of Rifle.
“They’re big and fast, they’re a very good football team,” he said. “They score a lot of points and have a lot of weapons.”
The Panthers bring some of those same attributes to the semifinals.
Johnson has molded a balanced offense that can move the ball through the air or on the ground. As long as the weather allows it. Last week, on a sloppy field and a cold rain falling, the Panthers completed only one pass.
One of the big keys for Delta will be sophomore running back Jonny Ponce, who has rushed for 1,668 yards on 219 caries and has scored 16 TDs.
Ponce quickly went from varsity newbie to super sophomore.
“I didn’t play much at the first of the season,” he said with a smile. “As the year went on, I started playing more and more.”
Running behind a big offensive line, Ponce has been nearly unstoppable.
In the two playoff games, he’s rushed for 359 yards.
He gives all the credit to that offensive line.
“It’s because our line is so good,” he said.
Garcia said the Panthers were surprised at how quickly Ponce developed.
“Jonny stepped up and made big plays and he just got better as the season went on,” he said.
Johnson said the running game will be a big factor on Saturday.
“Our best bet is to keep (their offense) off the field,” he said. “Possessing the ball will be an important part of this game.”
But that doesn’t mean the passing game will be shut down.
“Weather permitting, we’ll try to open it up a little more,” he said.
Garcia said the Panthers’ balanced offense gives teams trouble. But when it comes to his preference, he enjoys hammering on defenders in the run game.
“I like run blocking because me and my left guard Jasiel Garcia (no relation) are the hosses on the line and Coach looks to us to move people and get the job done,” he said about his 260-pound teammate.
But pass blocking is just as important, Marcus said,
“We don’t want our quarterback to be touched and we like it when our quarterback and receivers look good,” he said, smiling.
Senior Ryan Whiteside has had a spectacular season with more than 1,000 yards receiving, but against Glenwood he didn’t catch a pass. But that didn’t bother him one bit.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said about catching passes. “As long as we get the W, that’s all that matters.”
Ponce has broke several long runs in virtually every game, including TD runs of 37 and 59 against Glenwood.
Whiteside said it’s the receivers’ job to block as well as catch passes.
“I’m always looking to get a good downfield block and maybe we can bust a long one,” he said.
Delta was a bit of an unknown when the Panthers entered the playoffs.
After a huge 31-21 win over top-ranked Palisade, the Panthers went to Rifle in the second-to-last game of the regular season and were routed by the Bears, 52-27.
Whiteside said it was a good loss.
“We were really pumped up after we beat Palisade, then went into Rifle and they outplayed us and out-hustled us,” he said. “I think it really woke us up.”
Beating Silver Creek and advancing to the title game will be a huge challenge for the Panthers. But every week, the underdog Panthers have proven they belong.