Panthers come up short against Kent Denver
ENGLEWOOD — In a game of evenly matched teams, a handful of plays can define the outcome. Delta High School’s football team, in search of its first state championship game appearance in 55 years, fell just a couple plays short in a 21-14 loss to perennial state power Kent Denver in the Class 2A semifinals.
While Delta (8-4) moved the ball effectively for most of the game, the Panthers couldn’t finish in the red zone.
Both programs prided themselves on their stout defense. However, the opening minutes seemed to indicate the game might turn into a shootout.
After a Panthers three-and-out on the opening drive, an A.B. Ontiveros punt pinned the Sun Devils (11-1) inside their own 10. Kent Denver proceeded to move the ball into Delta territory. Facing a fourth down, Kent quarterback Joey Licht lofted a pass behind the Delta secondary to senior receiver Max Waldbaum, who turned and ran untouched into the end zone for a 33-yard score.
The Panthers responded with a masterful 75-yard scoring drive of their own. Senior signal caller Kole Roberts broke free on a third down for a 17-yard scamper into Sun Devils territory. Two plays later, Roberts connected with Ontiveros for another big chunk of yardage, setting up a first-and-goal. On third down, Delta coach Ben Johnson dialed up a play fake, which sent the entire Sun Devils defense the wrong direction while Roberts zipped to the corner of the end zone to tied the score at 7-7.
The celebration on the visiting sideline was short-lived. Directly following the ensuing kickoff, Kent Denver ran a sweep, where junior running back Charles McKissick waited for blocks to spring him down the sideline for a 75-yard scoring jaunt.
Delta pushed right back down the field, but Roberts’ pass to the end zone was batted in the air and intercepted by Kent’s Josh McDonald.
Having leaned on their defense in the opening two playoff victories, the Panthers needed a big stop to swing the momentum.
And did they ever respond. Facing a fourth-and-one on their own 39, the Devils opted to go for it and the Delta defensive line stuffed McKissick, sending the visiting fans into delirium.
Senior Tristan Brown started to get the offense churning again. Paired with Damon Jensen, the Panthers gashed their way inside the red zone again. However, fourth down at the 2, Brown was turned away. Three trips into the Kent Denver red zone had only yielded one score, sending Delta to the locker room trailing 14-7.
On the opening drive of the second half, junior defensive lineman Logan Church dropped Licht for a sack on third down. However, the Panthers offense didn’t continue their first-half success. The Devils defense picked off Roberts a second time, and McKissick returned it to the Panthers 11.
Kent Denver cashed in shortly thereafter, as Licht found Waldbaum for their second strike of the game. For the first time in four weeks, the Panthers found themselves behind two scores heading to the final quarter, down 21-7.
Delta forced a punt and moved quickly down the field. Roberts found Beau Byers for a 28-yard score to close the gap to 21-14 with a little more than one minute remaining.
The Sun Devils recovered the Panthers’ onside kick, ending the Panthers’ season in the semifinals for the second consecutive year. Last year, Delta was in the Class 3A semifinals and lost against Roosevelt in Johnstown.
Kent Denver will play against La Junta, the 16-team bracket’s No. 1 seed, in the state title game. La Junta scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat Bayfield 14-13 in the other 2A semifinal game.
Coach Johnson applauded both teams’ efforts in the thrilling contest.
“Our kids played hard,” he said, “They just made a couple plays more than we did.”
As for his seniors, Johnson reflected on careers that included some of the most successful seasons in Panthers history.
“They’ve had a great four years,” he said, “and they’ll come back from this as better citizens from this experience.”