The Panther football program has been a marked man pretty much since day one. The team showed up for its first practice with a bulls-eye on its chest after capturing last year’s 3A state title. Eleven opponents have stepped up to take their best shot at the Panthers.
Most haven’t come close.
The Panthers have won each of their 11 games this season by an average margin of 35 points. Powell features a defense that’s allowing fewer than four points per game.
Put another way, the Panthers have forced nearly as many turnovers, 42, as they have surrendered points, 43, to opponents.
It was expected the Panthers would have one of the best front-seven units defensively this season. The Panthers’ linebacking corps, on paper coming into the year, looked to be as good as any in the state. At any classification.
The surprise comes in the secondary. A unit that was ravaged by graduation last spring and began the year nearly as green as the Panther Stadium turf when it came to varsity experience has proven more than up to the challenge. Compare this year’s numbers to last season’s, or even the 2010 season’s. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a difference in production.
Only the names have changed. Last year it was Olie Olson leading Class 3A in interceptions. This year it’s Hayden Cragoe. Last year it was Cooper Wise giving chase in that category. This year it’s Dewey Schwahn and Matthew Widdicombe.
More impressive has been the degree to which the Panthers’ defense has set itself apart. This is a unit that may well be setting the comparison standard, not just at PHS, but for all of Wyoming, for years to come.
Powell’s defense is surrendering just 147 yards per game. The next-best defense in Class 3A is allowing nearly 86 yards more.
Incidently, that defense is owned by Star Valley, the Panthers’ opponent this Friday. The two schools rank first and second, respectively, in every stat category.
On the other side of the coin, we have the Northwest College men’s soccer program. Like the Panther football team, the Trappers lost some key players to graduation last spring.
NWC was ranked 20th to begin the year, but featuring a roster with 22 freshmen, that rating was more a courtesy bestowed for the team’s performance the previous year. After some early-season struggles, that recognition quickly vanished.
Less than two weeks ago, this was a Trapper team whose season was over. Northwest College fell short in its attempt to achieve back-to-back regional titles.
That was it. The curtain came down. I know because I helped write the team’s obituary. Uniforms were on their way back to storage.
After all, isn’t one of the few certainties in sports that when you lose in the post-season, there are no do-overs?
Not in the wacky world of soccer, and not this season here in Region IX. Thanks to a shoot-out victory over rival Otero in the regional semifinals and a fortuitous alignment of NJCAA post-season procedures this season, the Trappers have continued to play.
Man have they continued to play.
When opportunity knocked, the Trapper men opened the door, wrapped both hands around its neck and squeezed with all their might. The program stunned third-ranked Yavapai by a 4-2 count that in no way resembled a fluke victory or a team packing it in with the hope of taking its chances in overtime and a penalty kick shootout.
They followed that up with some sweet redemption in the district championship game. Northwest defeated the same Western Wyoming program that had appeared to end its season six days earlier at the regional title game in Cheyenne.
Now they are one of only 12 junior college programs still playing their season.
Overlooked in the bizarre nature of the Trappers’ post-season is the fact that men’s soccer is still a program undergoing growth at the college. Yes, the Trappers have appeared in three consecutive regional championship games and back-to-back district tournaments, but this is also a program that, at its heart, is only three years old. Head coach Rob Hill has been nothing short of masterful in constructing a program from the ground up. After witnessing district play for the first time last autumn, Hill changed his recruiting profile to account for what the Trappers needed to compete, not only at a regional level, but also for the district phase.
Evidently, he learned that lesson well. Remember, of the 26 names on the roster this fall, 22 of those players were freshmen. Toss out one medical redshirt, and 21 of the players who helped guide the Trappers to Georgia were playing high school soccer, in many cases as recently as this past spring.
Now they’re four wins away from a possible national championship. Sure, it’s an uphill climb, but for a team that dropped a 4-2 bombshell on the No. 3 team in the land just days after being thought down and out, is it really that crazy a notion to entertain?
Crazier than what has already happened?
This is what the fall sports season has come down to here in Powell. Two teams. Two different paths. One last week.
Sit back and enjoy. It could be one wild week around town.