Panthers’ prowl starts in the trenches
Football excellence is a tradition that fuels the motivation for the Delta Panthers every season.
With 66 players out, the Panthers are preparing for their second season at the Class 2A level and the expectations remain as high as ever.
For the past two seasons, the Panthers have advanced to the state semifinals before being eliminated.
That tradition of success keeps the Panthers reloading instead of rebuilding year after year.
“They know what the expectations are and they’re hungry and excited, and they have a bad taste in their mouths from last year,” head coach Ben Johnson said.
A 21-14 loss to Kent Denver in the 2016 state semifinals is responsible for that hunger and bad taste.
It’s been 55 years since a Delta team has played in a state title game.
At first glance, it looks like the Panthers should be rebuilding, after losing three offensive stars in quarterback Kole Roberts, wide receiver Beau Byers, and running backs Damon Jensen and Tristan Brown.
But the 2017 team is again built for success.
There will be 10 seniors and one junior starting for the defense, including a pair of second-team all-state players, Logan Church and Josh Reeder.
Even though the Panthers lost a good core of seniors, they have a bunch of new seniors ready to take their place.
“We have a lot of unproven skill (position) kids but the skill kids who are stepping in are all seniors, they’ve been waiting for their turn to go,” Johnson said. “They had a very good class in front of them, so these kids have been chomping at the bit to prove themselves.”
Experience on the line will be a major strength for the Panthers.
“I think the line coming back this year is our strong point for us,” Church said. “We all know each other and we’re a lot closer.”
The Panthers also have size along both lines, with Church weighing in at 260 pounds and Reeder at 230. Both are three-year starters along with Cameron Schaal, who is a 215-pound running back/linebacker.
Drake Horn will move to the QB spot after starting on defense last season.
“He’s a little smaller (170 pounds), so he’s more of an option kid, he’s a good runner,” Johnson said. “We’ll run a little more option this year but we will still try and stay as balanced as possible.”
Johnson never wants to have a one-dimensional offense, but the Panthers’ success has always been about running the football.
The veteran coach is excited about another newcomer who is expected to continue a long tradition of productive running backs.
“We’ve been very fortunate, we’ve had Jonny Ponce and then Damon Jensen, and this is a new kid who’s been waiting for his turn to go,” Johnson said.
Brandon Starr is the new kid, who is a senior with good speed.
Running behind that big, experience O-line, Johnson said he’s expecting Starr to crack the 1,000-yard barrier just like Ponce and Jensen did.
After two straight tough losses in the semifinals, the seniors are focused on getting back into the playoffs and going further.
“I makes us want to drive harder,” Church said.
Reeder agreed: “We’ve been there two years in a row and we just want to get back there and win it this year.
“It’s so exciting. I just want to help the team be the best they can be.”
Now in the second season competing in the Class 2A Intermountain Conference, Johnson believes the team will be better adjusted.
“I think it’s going to help us a bunch,” he said. “After we dropped down (from 3A), we kinda had a bull’s-eye on our chest, and now we know some of these teams better, and that will help us a lot.”
Playing in the conference with Alamosa, Gunnison, Montezuma-Cortez, Bayfield and Pagosa Springs means long road trips, with at least two trips of more than four hours.
Bayfield is the conference’s perennial power. The Wolverines won the conference title last season and then had a heartbreaking loss in the state title game, losing a late lead and falling to La Junta 14-13. The Wolverines won the state title in 2015.
As usual, the Panthers have a tough nonconference schedule that includes a trip to open the season at Class 3A Durango and hosting former Class 3A WSC rival Palisade on Sept. 22.