Delta set for test against No. 1 team in state
This might be Delta High School football coach Ben Johnson’s first season as a head coach in Colorado, but this isn’t his first rodeo.
The Panthers’ first-year man spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach at Olathe High School, and before that, 10 years as a head coach in Las Vegas, Nev.
After serving as head coach at both Chaparral and Sierra Vista High Schools in Las Vegas, the three years spent with the Pirates helped Johnson renew his love of coaching.
“There were a lot of things I learned from being an assistant,” Johnson said. “It was very refreshing to focus more on the football side of things. I really enjoyed working with the people at Olathe, and when the Delta job opened up, I took it.”
But Johnson was taking over a Delta program that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1999. When he arrived, he said it was important to establish what type of team the Panthers wanted to be.
“We knew we had some good talent here,” Johnson said. “But we started a little slow and we didn’t really know our identity. But I do the same drills every day and they started to understand what they needed to accomplish.”
The identity the Panthers found was that of tough, aggressive football team, especially on the defensive side. In last week’s Class 3A first-round playoff game against D’Evelyn, the Panthers held a Jaguars team that averaged nearly 40 points per game to only six points in a 14-6 win.
Delta’s win was propelled by forcing seven D’Evelyn turnovers, including a 20-yard fumble return by Chad Cromwell to give the Panthers their first score.
“After we scored the first time by scooping and scoring, I think the kids realized they could play with D’Evelyn,” Johnson said.
After that, the Panthers quashed numerous Jaguar scoring attempts. Johnson said it was a good feeling to get the first playoff win for Delta in 10 years.
“They were a really good team,” Johnson said. “But it felt good to win because a lot of people doubted we could go in there and win.”
The Panthers’ defensive domination is exactly what Johnson hoped to create.
“I think defense sets the tone for mental and physical toughness,” Johnson said. “I’ve think we’ve come a long way to become a physical team.”
The proof is in the numbers. Delta gave up a total of 131 total points in the regular season. In the previous five seasons, the Panthers had given up at least 200 points every season, with the high coming in 2005 when they allowed 389.
Leading the defense is linebacker Gene White. The senior tops the team with more than 115 tackles and has a knack for coming up with the big play. Against D’Evelyn, White intercepted a pass at the goal line to keep the Jaguars out of the end zone.
“Gene has great instincts,” Johnson said. “And at 215 pounds, he’s a strong physical player.”
Defensive lineman Duncan Simmons and free safety Phillip Decker have also been a big part of the defensive success, Johnson said.
All three will be key in helping to lead a Panthers defense when they host a quarterfinal game at 1 p.m. on Saturday against top-seeded Pueblo Central. The Wildcats are coming off a 34-0 thrashing of Palisade where running back Keanu Valdez rushed for 238 yards against a tough Bulldogs defense.
“We have to stop their run game,” Johnson said. “They are very talented and big.”
If the Panthers win, they could face a rematch with Steamboat Springs in the state semifinals.
The Sailors host Windsor at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Glenwood Springs is still alive on the other side of the bracket, playing at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Valor Christian.