A downer in Delta: Panthers can’t keep up with Wildcats in 3A quarterfinals

DELTA — The secret to success for the Delta High School football team all season had been controlling the tempo with its running game and defense.

Saturday in the second round of the Class 3A state playoffs, neither the running game nor defense did much to help the Panthers’ cause.

Delta fell behind 21-0 and couldn’t dig itself out of that hole, losing to top-ranked Pueblo Central 34-7.

“They are a good football team,” Delta coach Ben Johnson said. “They were better than us today.”

On the opening series of the game, the Panthers allowed the Wildcats to march 80 yards. Delta looked to have the drive stopped early, but on third down, Pueblo Central quarterback Max Lerille connected with 6-foot-4 receiver Trent Thompson for a 57-yard pass.

Lerille found Thompson again four plays later on third-and-11 for the game’s first touchdown.

Delta responded with its steady running game of Michael Patton. The 215-pound junior tailback had led the Panthers all season with more than 1,100 yards rushing. On the first offensive play, Patton took a pitch to the right side for a 5-yard gain.

It turned out to be his only offensive play of the game — he injured his right knee on the play.

“The injury on the very first offensive play of the game greatly changed what we were doing,” Johnson said. “I don’t know the exact extent of the injury but hopefully he’s OK.”

Delta quarterback Austin Watson threw an interception on the next play.

The Panthers were able to regroup when Nolan Britain intercepted a jump ball intended for Byram Brown.

Delta was unable to do anything with the turnover and had to punt. The Wildcats used a heavy dose of tailback Keanu Valdez to put together a 15-play drive that ended with Lerille finding Hurley Sammon on a 14-yard touchdown reception.

Valdez finished with 184 yards on 24 carries.

“They came out to play and we didn’t,” Watson said. “They out-worked us in every aspect of the game.”

Watson’s second pass attempt of the game had a similar result to his first. On Delta’s first play of its next drive, he was intercepted by Lerille. The Wildcats didn’t waste any time, with Lerille connecting with Brown for his third touchdown of the first half.

Motivated to not get blown out in the first playoff game in Delta in 10 years, the Panthers managed to score before halftime. Watson shook off his rough start to complete his final five passes of the first half, including a 15-yard touchdown to Chad Cromwell with less than 40 seconds remaining.

Cromwell had five catches for 58 yards.

“It was a huge momentum builder,” said Watson, who finished 9 of 16 for 126 yards. “We thought if we could come out in the second half and score again it would be a whole different ballgame.”

In the third quarter, Delta held the ball for nearly seven minutes, but had two promising drives stall. The Wildcats went on a five-minute drive to close out the third quarter on a Lerille 6-yard touchdown run to make it 27-7.

“I was hoping to get a drive out of halftime to get some momentum going and make it 21-14,” Johnson said. “But it didn’t happen.”

It was a unique scene in Delta, with the stadium filled with supporters rooting on a Panthers team that was one of the biggest surprises in Class 3A football this season.

“The senior leadership was outstanding to get us to this point,” Johnson said. “I think this meant a lot to the school and community.”


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