BASALT — The semifinal round has been the furthest the Delta High School football team has advanced since 1961.
After losing in the semifinals three times since 2013 — twice in Class 3A — the Panthers finally have a chance to play for a state title after beating Basalt 17-6 on Saturday in the Class 2A semifinals.
"Coach (Johnson) told us, 'We get to that door every year, but now it's just time to kick that door in,' " junior quarterback Nolan Bynum said of the historic win. "It really hasn't hit me too hard yet. I know once I get in my car I'm just going to break down, I think. But it's crazy. We are just blessed with the community that we have. My teammates, I love my teammates and we have a great bond and we are ready to go get one more next week."
In that 1961 title game, Delta lost to Lamar. The Panthers' only state football championship came in 1960 with a victory over Fairview.
Delta (11-1), the No. 4 seed, plays second-seeded Sterling (11-1) for the 2A state championship on Nov. 30 in Pueblo. The Tigers beat No. 3 Resurrection Christian 21-14 in Saturday's other semifinal.
The Panthers' path to the 2019 state title game came after the Longhorns pulled within 10-6 in the third quarter.
Basalt's defense made a pair of fourth-down stops deep in their own territory early in the third quarter to stay within striking distance. A 79-yard pass from quarterback Matty Gillis to wide receiver Rulbe Alvarado gave the Longhorns some momentum.
"One thing that has been so special with this team all year is their perseverance," Basalt coach Carl Frerichs said. "These kids don't fold. They keep battling. We knew all we needed was one thing to break our way and we felt like that happened in the third quarter — that big play to Rulbe. And we were just one or two more big plays from having this Saturday be the Saturday we wanted it to be."
Still leading 10-6 entering the fourth quarter, Bynum led Delta's offense on a game-sealing drive, which ended with a 26-yard pass to Hunter Hughes — the duo's second scoring connection in the game..
"That drive was huge," Bynum said. "That completely flipped the whole momentum of the game right there. They got it back and we drive the ball down the field and get that score and it's back in our hands."
Leading 17-6, Delta's defense sealed the win with a pair of interceptions late in the game.
"I wish the game would have gone differently today," Frerichs said. "I definitely know when we go back and watch film we are going to kind of beat ourselves up a little bit because we know we had opportunities. We went toe-to-toe with them."
The semifinal was a rare playoff matchup between a pair of 2A Western Slope Conference foes. Basalt and Delta had played four times in four years, splitting the contests. That included a 35-6 win for the Panthers earlier this season in Delta.
Both teams weren't sharp early in the game with Bynum's pass to Hughes the only touchdown of the first half. The score came after Basalt muffed a punt deep in its own territory.
"Basalt played really well. Hats off to them. They took away a lot of good things that we tried to do and sort of made us a little bit ugly," Delta coach Ben Johnson said. "They played a really good game and they had a tremendous year and those guys should be very proud of themselves."
Basalt, the No. 9 seed, ends its season with a 9-3 record. It was the third straight season the Longhorns finished with nine wins,.
"Credit to coach Johnson and his staff. They were well prepared," Frerichs said. "They did some great things up front and man, they are super athletic up front. We had a hard time with their speed and their athleticism and they had some big kids up there."