SALIDA – These are the games that kids dream about while playing backyard football with their friends. Fourth quarter, the game hanging on each snap of the football, neither team willing to give an inch.
With emotion on full display from Montezuma-Cortez and Salida, both looking for their first league win, the host Spartans denied a spirited Panthers rally with a late touchdown to seal a 34-27 victory.
The opening moments belied the drama that would play out later, as Salida (1-7, 1-2 2A IML) scored on their first two possessions of the contest, staking out a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Out of nowhere, the M-CHS (1-7, 0-4 2A IML) offense caught lightning in a bottle. After a penalty on their first play of the ensuing drive pushed them back to their own 12-yard line, junior quarterback Ty Blackmer connected with classmate Korie Likes on a screen play. Likes caught the ball and broke a pair of tackles before sprinting 88 yards for the score.
The tenor of the contest immediately shifted. The Panthers swarmed Salida ball carriers, and junior Austin Featherman pounced on a fumble late in the first quarter.
The Spartans regained their composure, stopping the Panthers on fourth down and regaining momentum with a methodical 79-yard scoring drive to go ahead 20-6.
Still, the Panthers showed confidence in their offense as Blackmer found Likes and seniors Valentino Rodriguez and Caleb Gropp for big yardage through the air. The aerial attack opened up the running game, and sophomore Cade Price found the end zone to cut the deficit to 20-14.
However, Salida marched down the field and scored what appeared to be a back-breaking touchdown reception on third-and-17, giving the Spartans a 26-14 lead with 20 seconds before halftime.
With 60 yards in front of them and seconds left, Blackmer connected with Likes on the sideline at the Salida 33-yard line to give the Panthers one more play before half. Then, defying the odds, Blackmer’s heave lingered in the air long enough for Likes to outleap everyone in the end zone for the unlikely score. The Panthers sprinted to the locker room with the momentum, despite trailing 26-20.
Out of halftime, the Panthers continued where they left off. The offensive line, led by senior Dorsey Dick and junior Devan Frost, protected Blackmer, allowing him to pick apart the Spartan secondary. Although the Spartans turned away a promising Panther drive, M-CHS returned the favor as junior defensive lineman Lathan Jones stuffed a fourth-and-1 to give the Panthers the football late in the third quarter.
From there, M-CHS put together one of their best drives of the night, eating up over five minutes, before Price tallied his second touchdown of the night from 7 yards out to give the Panthers their first lead, 27-26.
It was the Spartans who would have the final word on their Senior Night. Facing fourth-and-goal at the M-CHS 1-yard line, the hosts squeezed the ball across the goal line for the go-ahead score with less than two minutes to play. A last-gasp effort for the Panthers ended in a turnover, and Salida escaped with the victory.
With emotions on both sidelines laid bare after the final horn, first-year M-CHS coach Jarret Watkins was proud about how his squad fought during the seesaw battle.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” said Watkins. “These boys played with all their hearts tonight – and as a coach, you can’t ask for anything more.”
It was one of their most comprehensive efforts of the season on both sides of the ball.
“One of the things that impressed me was how well they made adjustments,” said Watkins. “They were communicating well and were able to recognize what they needed to do to deal with Salida’s pressure.”
The Panthers will honor their seven seniors in their regular season finale Friday with Senior Night at home when they host Albuquerque Academy at 7 p.m. Yet, Watkins knew that his young squad’s aim for the future is bright, even if the lesson comes in a defeat.
“We gained a lot of confidence tonight,” concluded the M-CHS head coach. “They learned how hard they can battle, even when they’re down.”