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October 23, 2008 3:02 am

Wild West Showdown

Written by Tribune Staff

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Quarterback Galen Mills (21) and the fourth-ranked Panthers will travel to face top-ranked Cody Friday in a game that will decide the Class 4A, West Conference championship. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Cody's C.R. “Spike” Vannoy Memorial Stadium. Tribune file photo by David Dickey

Conference title on the line Friday night

Class 4A's West Conference title will be decided when the Powell High School Panthers invade Cody's C.R. “Spike” Vannoy Memorial Stadium for a 7 p.m. showdown Friday.

Cody will enter the game as the top-ranked team in Class 4A, according to this week's ranking released by WyoPreps.com. Powell dropped from third to fourth in the rankings despite defeating third-ranked, Class 3A Lovell by 35 points last week.


The Broncs (5-2 overall, 4-0 West) currently have sole possession of first place in the West Conference standings, but the Panthers (5-2, 3-1) can force a two-way tie for the top spot with a victory Friday night. If that happens, Powell will be crowned the conference champion via the head-to-head tiebreaker. Adding to the importance of the final regular-season game for both teams is the fact that the winner will gain home-field advantage through the first two weeks of the playoffs, provided it wins during the initial round of postseason play.

“It's an awfully big game,” said Jim Stringer, PHS head coach. “There's a lot riding on it, and it should be an exciting matchup. I think it will be a low-scoring, hard-hitting game, and the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to be the one that comes out on top.”

The Panthers will enter the game riding the momentum of a three-game winning streak, which includes victories over Star Valley (28-2, Oct. 3), Jackson (19-14, Oct. 10) and Lovell (42-7, Oct. 17). During last week's decision over the Class 3A Bulldogs, PHS shutdown Lovell's pass-heavy spread offense, which entered the contest leading 3A in passing offense. This week, however, the Panthers will be facing a much different beast.

Cody, according to Stringer, is the type of team that relies heavily on its physical strength and power running game. The Broncs currently rank second in 4A's team rushing category with an average of 195.3 yards per game. Only Buffalo (230.3 ypg) ranks ahead of Cody in that statistical department.

Among the main weapons for the Broncs' ground game is running back Dayton McMillan. Through seven weeks, he has 105 rushing attempts for 588 yards and nine touchdowns. Those numbers have him ranked fourth in 4A's individual rushing department. Cody's second-leading rusher is quarterback Landon Blanchard, who has 227 yards and three touchdowns on 52 carries. Through the air, Blanchard has completed 27 of 72 passes for 312 yards.

“One of the keys for us will be stopping their running game,” Stringer said. “(McMillan) has done a nice job this season. They like to run him between the tackles. He runs hard, and he's been a big part of their offense this season.”

Like Cody, Powell also has enjoyed success on the ground. The Panthers' ground game is ranked third in 4A with 159.7 yards per game. Running back Billy Harshman leads PHS in rushing with 394 yards and five touchdowns on 97 attempts. He is ranked eighth in 4A's individual rushing category.

Harshman isn't the only player capable of exploiting an opposing defense. Quarterback Galen Mills has been able to get his fair share of rushing yardage and is ranked second on the team with 272 yards on 89 attempts. Slot back Trevor Donarski also has burned defenses to the tune of 167 yards on 38 attempts. Auston Carter, a hard-charging runner built in the mold of a fullback, is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. For the season, he has 116 yards on 24 attempts.

In the passing department, Cody ranks 10th out of the 11 teams in 4A. The Broncs, who rarely go to the air, are averaging a mere 53 passing yards per game and have yet to throw a touchdown pass this season. Powell, in comparison, ranks much higher, thanks to its balanced attack. PHS is ranked fourth in 4A's standings for passing offense with 107.1 yards per game.

Mills, who has enjoyed several solid passing performances in recent weeks, has completed 55 percent of his passes (51 of 93) for 750 yards and eight touchdowns. Making his numbers even more impressive is that this year is his first as a varsity signal caller.

“Galen has done a nice job for us this season,” Stringer said. “He throws a very catchable ball and he continues to improve each week.”

Stringer also noted Mills' ability to absorb information on the fly. Against Lovell last week, the Panther coaching staff noticed areas of Lovell's defense which could be exploited by the passing game. They discussed the x's and o's with Mills at halftime, and during the second half, he was able to recognize a mismatch against the Bulldog defense and audibled to a pass play that resulted in a touchdown strike to his twin brother, Gavin Mills.

“That was great to see,” Stringer said. “He remembered what we had talked about, recognized what the defense was doing, and he called that play at the line.”

Adding to Galen Mills' effectiveness through the air is a corps of receivers who have consistently pulled down one big catch after another. The top pass catcher is Ryan Brandt, who has hauled in 16 passes for a team-leading 261 receiving yards. Four of his receptions have gone for touchdowns. Donarski has 15 catches for 202 yards and one touchdown, and Gavin Mills has 13 receptions for 201 yards and three touchdowns.

When it comes to defense, both teams rank among Class 4A's best. Powell is first in total defense. The Panthers are giving up 175.9 yards per game. PHS is No. 1 against the run (88.7 ypg) and No. 6 against the pass (87.1 ypg).

Leading the defensive charge for PHS are Trevor Donarski and Matt McArthur, who are averaging 17.4 and 14 defensive points per game, respectively.

The Broncs are ranked third in 4A's standings for total defense. Cody is second against the run (91.9 ypg) and eighth against the pass (95.1 ypg).

McMillan ranks as the top defender for the Broncs, and he leads the state in defensive points with 144 for a 20.6-point average per game.

“Some of the things we do probably won't work against the type of defense they use,” Stringer said. “But there also are some elements of our offense that set up nicely against them. We'll have to do everything we can to make each possession count. That's not to say we have to score every time we get the ball. That may mean moving the ball 20 or 25 yards and pinning them deep in their own territory with a punt. If we can make our offensive possessions meaningful and not squander opportunities, I think we'll be right there in it.”