The Panthers, for the second consecutive week, enter the game as the unanimous No. 1 selection among the state panel. All 26 voters listed Powell, 8-0, 4-0, atop their ballot. Star Valley received all 26 second-place votes in this week’s poll.
While the Panthers’ series with Green River has been a very short one, the games have had plenty riding on them. Last season, the Panthers were humbled in the final week of the regular season, costing the team a share of the 3A West title. Two weeks later, the Panthers returned to Green River to record a dramatic last-second win over the Wolves in a 3A semifinal contest.
Friday’s game will continue that trend of important clashes between the two schools. At stake for the Panthers will be the 3A West conference title and the opportunity for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“When you play late in the season like this there are always going to be playoff implications,” said Panther coach Jim Stringer. “This year it comes down to who takes away the conference title.”
A win by the Panthers and the conference title is theirs. The Panthers would wrap up an undefeated regular season campaign and would be able to host a quarterfinal playoff game as well as a possible semifinal contest.
A loss sends the Panthers into a likely three-way tie for the conference title — Star Valley would have to defeat Jackson on Friday night to create the three-way logjam. Worse, it would create a three-way coinflip for playoff seeding, meaning that the Panthers could still find themselves on the road for the state quarterfinals unless they take care of business on Friday night.
“That’s not a situation that anyone wants to be in,” said Stringer. “Nobody wants to leave their fate up to the flip of a coin.”
To avoid that contingnecy, the Panthers will have to contend with one of the state’s most potent offenses. Through six weeks of the season — statistics have yet to be updated to reflect the results of last Friday’s games — the Wolves were the only 3A team in Wyoming to average better than 400 yards per game offensively. The Wolves were outgaining Powell, the state’s No. 2 offense through six weeks, by roughly 30 yards per game.
Neither of those offenses had the opportunity to shine last week, however. The Wolves were held scoreless in a 42-0 shutout at the hands of Star Valley. The Panthers, meanwhile, struggled to execute, picking up just 222 yards, prompting Stringer to announce a focus on execution this week in practice.
“We’re working on it,” Stringer said of the offense. “We’re trying to get the kids to understand the importance of every little detail and to incoporate those into everything we do so that somewhere down the line we don’t get ourselves hurt because we’re not paying attention to detail.”
The detail that concerns the Panthers this week will be quarterback Zack Huber. Huber sits second in all-purpose yardage this season in Class 3A, accounting for roughly half of the Wolves’ offensive output on any given night. The Wolves pick up more than 300 of their yards, on average, along the ground.
“They’re definitely a run-oriented team,” said Stringer. “They run a lot of read-option stuff with the quarterback. Their ace back is a good runner too, but a lot of their big gains come when the quarterback pulls the ball and keeps it.”
The nature of the read-option will force the Panthers to pay attention to their keys on defense.
“If we stay in position and read your keys, you can tell where the ball is going pretty easily,” said Stringer. “The key is staying disciplined and staying in position.”
On defense, the Wolves run a 4-4 alignment, sometimes flipping into a 4-3 set, according to Stringer. The Panthers’ coach called the Wolves a bend-but-don’t-break team on the defensive side of the ball.
“I would expect to move the ball and score,” said Stringer. “To do that, we’ll have to establish some consistency on them. They’ve been a bend, don’t break defense. People have gotten yards, but they’ve been able to keep people from scoring for the most part.”
The Panthers should have a clean bill of health coming into the game. Brendon Phister, who sat out last week for precautionary reasons, is expected back. Vince Sleep, hobbled late in last Friday’s game at Cody, was also termed “doing well” by Stringer.
“We’re late in the year, so everyone has aches and owwies, but we’re working through them very well,” said Stringer.
Friday will also serve as senior night for the Panthers. Seniors Dewey Schwahn, Cameron Bennett, Vince Sleep, Hunter Werbelow, Jonathan Bjornestad, Erik Denney, Mike Mundy, Zach Herman, Tyler Patterson and Logan Hartman will see their final regular-season action at home in the contest.
Kickoff for the Panthers’ game against Green River is scheduled for 7 p.m.