Fresh off its first state playoff appearance since 2014, the Montezuma-Cortez High School football team will aim for a rare feat in recent program history: a second consecutive trip to the postseason.
The Panthers returned seven seniors and 11 juniors from last year’s team that finished 4-6 overall and 1-3 in the 2A Intermountain League. The season ended in the first round of the playoffs in a 19-14 loss at defending state champion Bayfield, a game that showed the heart of a team that had lost 39-3 at Bayfield only three weeks before that playoff defeat.
But going into 2019, it is clear the Panthers will have to work out some growing pains together. Jarrett Watkins will replace Scott Conklin as the team’s head coach, while the team works to replace 12 key seniors lost from last season.
“The main thing for us was the playing time and getting experience because the fact we’re so young right now,” Watkins said after the team’s 56-12 exhibition loss Friday night at Durango High School. “Really, what I will take away the most is film time this weekend.”
Montezuma-Cortez led until the final five minutes of last year’s playoff game at Bayfield. Many of the key players from last year’s squad are now gone, but running back Vallentino Rodriguez is back after he tormented Bayfield for 139 yards on 15 carries in last year’s playoff performance.
Replacing Ike Dennison at quarterback is Ty Blackmer, now a junior. Last season, Blackmer passed for 250 yards on 44 attempts. That included three touchdowns and three interceptions.
It will be a challenge to replace Vinny Conklin and Cordell Baer at wide receiver, but the Panthers looked to Aca Dennison and Kyler Krobb for touchdown receptions Friday night at Durango. Another weapon for the Panthers is Jacob Schuster, who last season rushed for 217 yards and two touchdowns and also caught two touchdowns as part of 11 receptions for 134 yards.
Gone from a year ago are the five leading tacklers for the Panthers, including team-leader Matthew Broughton. The top-returning tackler is Rodriguez, who had 47 total tackles. Behind him is Chris Matimba, who had 43 tackles last season. Kaleb Gropp is back for the Panthers defense after he hauled in two interceptions a year ago.
Durango, which has big playoff aspirations this season in Class 3A, held the Montezuma-Cortez offense to negative total yardage while the Demons’ starters were on the field Friday. But the Panthers won’t hang their heads after being outmatched on the offense and defensive lines against a much larger opponent. They’ll look to regroup before the season opener at 7 p.m. Friday at home against Kirtland Central out of New Mexico. It starts in practice this week.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Watkins said. “A lot of running plays and cleaning things up. We didn’t even put in half of our playbook yet. We have to work on a lot more so we can put more in and also use more defensive concepts. It’s repetition that we need.”
Kirtland Central will be the first of three Montezuma-Cortez games against New Mexico foes, as the Panthers will visit Zuni on Sept. 27 and host Albuquerque Academy in the regular-season finale Nov. 1. The non-league schedule includes a Week 2 trip to face Gateway in Aurora and a Sept. 20 meeting at home against Delta.
League will once again be a challenge with trips to Pagosa Springs and Salida bookending home games with Alamosa and Bayfield to fill the month of October. Montezuma-Cortez was one of three teams from the IML – along with Alamosa and Bayfield – to make the playoffs last year, and Pagosa Springs had an argument to be in the playoffs with its 3-6 record that included a 41-28 road win at Montezuma-Cortez.
But several IML schools are looking to a new generation of players in 2019, as Salida lost 13 seniors and Bayfield a whopping 19.
“As far as non-conference games, Kirtland didn’t lose much from this year to last year. It was a tough game for us last year,” Watkins said. “We use those as preparation, but those games count. When it comes to later in the season, if you don’t have that win, it will hurt you, and we kind of slipped in last year because of things like that.
“When it comes to league, I’m not exactly sure what to expect. As far as football goes, it sounds like a down year for a lot of people in our conference.”