Ben Johnson hopes the fourth time is the charm.
The 11th-year head coach of the Delta High School football team has led the Panthers to the Class 2A semifinals three times. All three times, the Panthers have come up short, losing to Silver Creek in 2013, Roosevelt in 2015 and Kent Denver in 2016.
Delta was always competitive, only losing by an average score of 26-18. However, each time, Delta was denied its first state title game trip since 1961 and a chance at its first state title since 1960.
Once again, the Panthers are on the threshold of history. Fourth-seeded Delta (10-1) needs only one more win to advance to the state championship game, and it's against a familiar foe in Western Slope Conference rival No. 9 Basalt (9-2).
The game kicks off at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Basalt.
"(History) comes up a little bit," Johnson said. "I've been here over a decade and this is our fourth trip to the semis. We know what's expected. We need to go in there and hopefully get a W and get out of there."
Postseason rematches have been extremely rare for Johnson. In his tenure, only once has Delta faced a team twice in a season: 2013, when it lost to Glenwood Springs 15-7 in the regular season but won the rematch in the state quarterfinals, 13-9.
This time around, even more is on the line.
"The only thing we've done similar to this is when we played Glenwood Springs... and I thought that was a little weird.," Johnson said. "It's very odd to play a team in your league this late."
If the first meeting is any indication, Delta should be considered the favorite to advance. The Panthers hosted Basalt on Oct. 18, jumping to a 28-0 halftime lead en route to a 35-6 blowout win.
Junior quarterback Nolan Bynum completed 14 of 22 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers, adding another 38 yards and a score on the ground. Nathan Workman hauled in half of those passes for 97 yards and a touchdown. Ku La Moo ran for 78 yards on 12 carries.
"I thought our passing game was really good during the first game, but most importantly, I think our running game has improved over the weeks a great deal," Johnson said. "The running game will be a key matchup against them."
As usual, Delta's defense was a force to be reckoned with. The Longhorns, who didn't score until the final quarter, were limited to 259 total yards.
Basalt finished with 91 yards on 37 runs, an average of 2.5 yards per carry. Quarterback Matty Gillis also struggled, completing 12 of 22 passes for 125 yards.
The Longhorns' star receiver, Jackson Rappaport, was limited as well. He has 56 catches for 754 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, but the Panthers held him to five catches for 77 yards and a score. He also completed a 43-yard pass on a trick play.
"They have that big receiver," Johnson said. "They love to throw jump balls for that big receiver and have a good solid running game. I think they've opened it up a lot more since we played the last time. They've run some triple splits and some doubles and things they've never run before. They try to get that big kid in a little bit of space. He's a very dynamic player."
Delta isn't assuming another 29-point stroll this weekend. Since losing back-to-back games against the Panthers and Rifle, Basalt has won three straight games.
The Longhorns also have experience with turning a conference loss into a postseason win. In the regular season, Basalt lost 21-9 to Rifle. Last week, the result was significantly different, as the Longhorns upset the previously unbeaten, No. 1-seeded Bears in double overtime, 21-14.
Also, for the first time this postseason, Delta won't be in the comfortable confines of Panther Stadium, where it beat Pagosa Springs 44-0 and Faith Christian 37-35.
This showdown comes one week after a win that came at the expense of defensive stats and more than a few fingernails because of the back-and-forth affair, a far cry from the kind of game Delta is used to.
The Panthers have allowed around 3 points per game this season against teams other than Rifle or Faith Christian, but they know the task will be much taller against Basalt the second time around, especially on the road and with history at stake.
"There's some problems with (going on the road)," Johnson said. "Kids are a lot more comfortable at home, but it is what it is. We have to go there and play an outstanding game to hopefully get a chance to play for a state championship."