Delta controls own destiny in 3A Western Slope Conference

Jonny Ponce has given the Delta Panthers some balance on offense, running for 1,083 yards despite being used sparingly early in the season.

It may not look like the football game of the year on paper, but tonight’s Delta at Rifle contest could settle a number of things in the Class 3A Western Slope Conference.

First, a win by Delta (6-2, 5-1 WSC) puts them on the inside track for the conference title.

Winning a Western Slope Conference title would be a first, according to Delta Athletic Director Gregg Hawkins. He said he thinks the last conference title for the Panthers was back in 1989 when the team played in the Gunnison Valley Conference.

Delta has used a balanced attack on offense to become a playoff contender for the past two seasons.

Panthers sophomore Jonny Ponce has emerged as one of the best runners in Class 3A. His 1,083 yards currently leads the classification.

Delta head coach Ben Johnson said they used Ponce sparingly early in the season, but they realized the young back had too much explosiveness to not feed him the ball.

Ponce had runs of 80 and 56 yards last week en route to a 285-yard game.

Quarterback Cade Gafford keys an efficient passing game. The junior has thrown for 1,222 yards with 16 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

In Delta’s 31-21 win over Palisade (8-1, 6-1), the Panthers demonstrated how balanced they can be by running the ball 33 times and throwing 35 times.

“I think it’s extremely important,” Johnson said about being balanced on offense. “If you can keep teams on their heels a little bit, you can make them play honest.”

As in past years, Rifle has turned to its physical brand of defensive football and a potent running game. Rifle has three runners who have combined to rush for 2,212 yards and 30 TDs. Kellin Leigh has 900 yards, fellow senior Javier Nunez has 704 yards, and junior Brock Clark has rushed for 608 yards.

The game will come down to how well Rifle can control the ball with its running game and how effective Delta’s passing game is to complement the running of Ponce.

“The key is getting off blocks and making tackles,” Johnson said. “They block and execute so well.”

Rifle (6-2, 5-1), the defending WSC champion, is fighting for a spot in the 3A playoffs with two games to play.

Mistakes have been a culprit in Rifle’s two losses, including the heartbreaking 28-27 loss to Palisade on a 26-yard TD pass in the final 30 seconds.

“We simply must avoid turnovers and penalties,” head coach Damon Wells said. “We are undefeated right now if we could avoid turnovers.”

As usual, the strength and depth of the WSC is evident in the latest wild-card point totals released Tuesday by the Colorado High School Activities Association. With 16 teams set to make the 3A tournament, four WSC teams currently reside in the top 16: Palisade (No. 1), Delta (9), Glenwood Springs (13) and Rifle (15). Last season, four WSC teams made the playoffs.

By the end of the regular season there can only be two teams with only one loss in the conference. Right now, Delta’s one loss came to Glenwood Springs, Rifle lost to Palisade, and the Bulldogs lost to Delta. Glenwood Springs (5-3, 4-2) lost to Palisade and Rifle early but has put together an impressive five-game win streak to jump back into the playoff mix.

Last week’s win over Palisade gives the Panthers the tiebreaker if the two teams tie at the end of the season.

If Rifle wins tonight, Palisade will have the tiebreaker over the Bears. The Panthers wrap up their regular season at home against Steamboat Springs. Rifle ends its regular season at Eagle Valley (5-4, 3-4).

Palisade beat Eagle Valley on Thursday and ends the regular season at Moffat County.

WSC teams frequently contend for a 3A state title. Over the past five years, four WSC teams have made the state finals, but Glenwood Springs in 2008 was the only championship team. Steamboat Springs made the state finals in 2009, Glenwood returned in 2010, and Rifle lost the title game last year.


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