It’s been worth the wait.
Hours after their regular-season capping victory over Albuquerque Academy, the Montezuma-Cortez Panthers team had to sit and wait. For nearly 36 hours, the Panthers held their breath, hoping that their body of work would be enough to earn them a coveted spot in the field of 16 in the 2A State Championship bracket.
When the dust settled from the final regular season weekend, the Panthers received the good news – they were in – edging out league rival Pagosa Springs by .002 of a point in the final RPI standings.
“It was sheer joy,” said senior lineman Kale Hall of the moment he found that the Panthers were playoff-bound, “we’ve been through everything, all the losses and heartache over the last three years, so to have this group still together making the play-offs is amazing.”
For the Panthers, it will mark the first playoff appearance for any of the current players, and the program’s first foray into the postseason since 2014.
M-CHS enters the bracket as the 16-seed, taking on 2A Intermountain League and defending state champion, Bayfield.
The Panthers hope that their aerial attack enjoys more success against Bayfield than their previous meeting. In their Oct 12th meeting in Wolverine Country Stadium, the vaunted Bayfield defense limited M-CHS to 53 passing yards and less than 100 yards of total offense in a 39-3 Bayfield victory.
“We know we made some mistakes last time (against Bayfield),” said senior lineman Zeke Vargas, “We’re looking to play downhill and swarm to the ball.”
If their 54-0 win over Albuquerque Academy is any indicator, the Panthers might be finding their rhythm again. Senior quarterback Ike Dennison completed 24 passes for 264 yards, both season high-water marks. Sixteen of those grabs were made by classmate Vinny Conklin, who broke school records for both single-game and season-total receptions (58), surpassing M-CHS receiving standout and current school principal Jason Wayman’s previous mark.
The defense has made a name for itself this season as a hard-hitting unit, with the front seven composed of a senior core. The Panthers have collected 24 sacks and forced 15 turnovers as a unit.
“We’ve been playing together for 10 years,” said senior linebacker Matthew Broughton, the Panthers’ leading tackler. “It’s a good connection we have.”
The Wolverines, meanwhile, enter with a record of 7-1, having rallied from two touchdowns down to defeat Salida to cement their league crown. Their season hasn’t come without challenges, requiring overtime to top Pagosa Springs, while struggling offensively in a narrow victory over playoff qualifier Aspen and in their lone loss of the season, a 32-16 defeat at the hands of Durango.
Offensively, Bayfield features a multipronged ground attack, led by senior running back David Hawkins, who has 969 rushing yards. Senior quarterback Hayden Farmer has proven to be a threat as well, amassing nearly 900 yards passing. With the electricity of playoff football, the Panthers look to soak in another weekend under the lights.
“It’s the first year for every member on this team to be in the playoffs,” said senior defensive back Lonnie Dutchie. “Not everyone gets to experience this, so we’re wanting to enjoy the opportunity.”
The Panthers’ aggressive style of play stems from their coaching staff’s trust in the players to make experienced decisions.
“Our coaches had confidence that we could be in this position,” added Dutchie, “and the whole year our team has believed that we belong here.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone out there who’s not willing to give it their all,” said Hall. “We’re making our mark in history for the program, which has been a reward in itself.”
M-CHS makes their second trip in less than a month to Bayfield for a Friday night kickoff at 6 p.m. against the Wolverines with a spot in the 2A quarterfinals on the line.