Final four underdogs

No. 13 Delta ready to face defending state champion

Delta High School senior Ryan Whiteside, 11, has been a clutch player this season, with more than 1,000 receiving yards.


Class 3A Semifinals

No. 9 Silver Creek at No. 13 Delta

1 p.m. Saturday, Delta High School

About Silver Creek

Record: 9-2. No. 9 seed

Getting to semifinals: 47-14 over Evergreen; 34-14 over Pueblo East.

Head coach: Mike Apodaca, 11 years. Led Raptors to 3A state title in 2012 and runner-up finish in 2011.

■ Team averages 224 yards passing and 189 rushing a game.

■ Raptors have scored 436 points this season and given up 199.

Key players

■ Senior Ben Sjobakken has completed 138 of 222 passes for 2,182 yards 27 TDs and only four interceptions. He was 20 of 28 for 236 yards in last year’s state title game.

■ Sophomore Anthony Kasper has rushed for 1,024 yards on 123 carries and has nine TDs in eight games.

■ Senior Josh Quiroz has rushed for 657 yards and six TDs. He was a 1,000-yard rusher last season.

■ Four senior receivers have combined for more than 2,300 yards and 27 TDS.

■ Zane Lindsey has 39 catches for 558 yards and 11 TDs. Eric Machmuller has 42 catches for 738 yards and 7 TDs.

■ Senior linebacker Andre Apodaca averages 11 tackles a game and has four forced fumbles.

■ Senior defensive end Collin Gibbs has 84 tackles, three sacks.

■ Levi Cecil is a 260-pound defensive tackle who is being recruited by several Division I colleges.

■ Isaac Miller is a 6-7 245-pound tackle who is headed to CU next fall.

■ Last year the Raptors entered the playoffs as a 10 seed and beat Rifle 32-15 in the title game; lost 14-7 to Windsor in 2011 title game.

About Delta

Record: 9-3. No. 13 seed

Getting to semifinals: 42-41 win over Holy Family in overtime; 13-9 over Glenwood Springs.

Head coach: Ben Johnson, 4 years. Has led Panthers to playoffs three of past four years.

■ Team averages 164 yards passing and 212 rushing a game.

■ Panthers have scored 410 points this season and given up 236.

Key Players

■ Junior quarterback Cade Gafford has completed 134 of 231 passes for 1,922 yards. He has 23 TDs and only three interceptions.

■ Sophomore Jonny Ponce has rushed for 1,668 yards on 219 carries and has 16 TDs.

■ Junior Derek Horn has rushed for 380 yards and five TDs.

■ Senior Ryan Whiteside has 64 catches for 1,006 yards and 14 TDs.

■ Senior Tyler Sandoval has 31 catches for 260 yards and three TDs. On defense, he averages 6.6 tackles a game.

■ Senior Cordell Stroud has averaged eight tackles a game.

■ Junior Marcus Garcia (280 pounds) and Jasiel Garcia (260 pounds) anchor the offensive and defensive lines.

■ Last year Delta advanced to the quarterfinals.

■ Coach Johnson’s key to victory: “Our best bet is to keep them off the field. We have to keep the ball. They score a lot of points and have a lot of weapons. Possessing the ball will be an important part of this game.”

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.


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