The win capped an 11-0 season for the Panthers, the school’s first undefeated state championship team since the 1967 season. The victory also extended the Panthers’ win streak to 14 games, not counting a week 0 shutout of Miles City, and delivered back to back state 3A football titles to Powell.
“This is amazing,” said Schwahn, who caught the Panthers’ winning touchdown pass for the second consecutive year in the state championship game. “Hayden gave me the sign that we were going to fake the dive and throw the pass and everyone executed so well. The guys up front really sold it.”
Considering that Schwahn had been laying on the turf of Panther Stadium with a dislocated knee cap just six days earlier, his ability to compete in the state championship game in serious doubt, it was an apropos finish.
“Give all the glory to God, I had a lot of teammates, a lot of people praying for me this week,” Schwahn said of his rebound from the injury, which did prevent him from playing defense in Friday’s title contest. “I was OK kicking and, as long as I was going forward, things were pretty good, but when I was trying to backpedal you could tell.”
Schwahn later revealed that he had been diagnosed with a partial tear to his ACL. The injury was suffered in the Panthers’ semifinal victory over Green River.
“Dewey did a great job,” said Panther football coach Jim Stringer. “He did the best he could with what he had to work with. I thought he played a great game.”
The touchdown reception — a 9-yard toss from quarterback Hayden Cragoe — capped a seven play, 43-yard drive. It also accounted for the only points of the second half as the state’s top two defenses effectively parried scoring threats throughout much of the game.
Cory Heny positioned the Panthers for their game-winning drive by returning a punt to the Star Valley 43. From there, Powell hammered the ball at the Braves, using fullbacks Vince Sleep and Garrett Lynch as battering rams to chew up yardage and position the ball at the 9. After six successive running plays, the table was set for the play-action touchdown pass.
From there, the game was in the hands of the Panthers’ defense. Cory Heny stepped in front of a fourth-and-2 pass near midfield by Braves quarterback Trace Haderlie. After the Panthers failed to gain a first down on their ensuing possession, Schwahn unleashed a 56-yard punt that Powell downed at the Star Valley 4.
The Braves managed just 10 yards before relinquishing control of the football on downs. That allowed Powell to take a knee and run the remaining time off the clock.
The stingy nature of the Panthers’ defense defined much of the second half. Powell allowed Star Valley to gain just 100 yards in the second half, 51 of which came on a single play. The Panthers also forced a pair of interceptions in the half — the late snare by Heny and a third-quarter grab by Sleep, which the senior middle linebacker returned for 21 yards to quash an early second-half scoring threat by the Braves.
The late-game defensive stand stood in stark contrast to the first half, where the Braves moved the football like no Panther opponent had all season. Star Valley’s top-ranked offense had its way early on against the Panthers, gashing Powell for 138 yards — nearly an entire game’s worth of production by a Panther opponent through the season’s first 10 weeks and nearly as many as the Braves had managed in their entire first game against the Panthers this season.
After watching Braves running back Ryan Brough take carries for 19 and 17 yards on consecutive early possessions, the Panthers were finally able to force the Star Valley drive to stall at the Panther 32.
Powell worked the ball down field, getting a 32-yard Cragoe-to-Lynch completion to move into Star Valley territory. Sleep, Lynch and Heny alternated carries from there, with Sleep taking the football the final 6 yards for the first points of the game. A block of the point-after attempt left Powell in front 6-0.
Star Valley continued to move at will against the Panthers, however. The Braves moved from their own 30 and advanced to within inches of a touchdown before an illegal shift penalty forced the Braves to settle for a 22-yard Byron Anderson field goal with 11:05 remaining in the first half.
The Panthers moved the ball into Star Valley territory on their next possession, but back-to-back sacks of Cragoe placed the team in a fourth-and-21 position, forcing a punt.
The Braves followed with a 14-play, 79 yard touchdown drive that consumed more than six and a half minutes off the clock. Haderlie was 5-for-5 on completions during the drive for Star Valley, but the Braves still needed Ryan Brough’s second-effort to move the final yard into paydirt.
With the extra point, the Braves grabbed a 10-6 lead, marking the first time this season the Panthers had fallen behind on the scoreboard. That score remained at halftime as Powell was content to run the remaining time off the clock and head to the locker room to make adjustments.
“Early on, it was just a case where we had some kids out of position for what we wanted to do,” said Stringer. “We were able to get it fixed at halftime and challenged them a bit to play as aggressive and trustworthy in their reads as they had throughout the season. We were a little tentative early, but after the half we picked it up and were able to shut them down.”
The change was immediately evident. The Panthers held Star Valley to a three-and-out to open the second half. The Panthers needed just three playes to move from their own 18 to the Braves’ 19 as Heny uncorked a 47-yard scramble.
The promising drive was cut short, however, as Tyler Allerd intercepted a Cragoe pass attempt at the 7 for the game’s first turnover. Two plays later, Sleep returned the favor, grabbing the ball and returning it 21 yards.
The two schools played the remainder of the third quarter near midfield. Powell’s attempt at a fake punt was stuffed at the Star Valley 45, but the Braves were unable to advance beyond the line of scrimmage and punted the football back to the Panthers.
Slowly, as the teams exchanged punts, the battle of field position began to tip in the Panthers’ favor as Schwahn averaged nearly 44 yards per kick on Friday.
The Braves’ next possession started at the 20. The first Star Valley possession of the fourth quarter began at the Braves’ 2, setting up the fourth quarter drama.
Sleep finished with 132 yards on 18 carries to lead the Panthers. Heny added 82 yards on just six carries as the Panthers did the bulk of their damage on the ground.
For the contest, Powell gained 301 yards, 249 of which were on the ground. Cragoe connected for just 3-of-11 passing for 52 yards.
Star Valley finished with 315 yards of offense, including 175 via the air against the state’s top defensive unit. Much of that total came before halftime, however.
Anthony Lujan finished with eight solo tackles, eight assisted tackles and assisted on a tackle for loss to lead the Panthers’ defensive charge. Heny added six solo and four assisted tackles in support. Cragoe also had six solo stops in the contest.
“It’s just an incredible feeling,” said senior Mike Mundy. “I can’t really put it into words. It’s a once in a lifetime feeling and I’m just so blessed to have teammates and a community supporting us that have allowed me to experience this twice now.”
While the Panther seniors can look at back-to-back titles and contrast them to a freshman season in which Powell sat home for the playoffs altogether, for the younger members of the team, the championship run has become a tradition.
“Two more,” quipped sophomore lineman Riley Stringer after it was noted that he had held aloft a championship trophy in each of his first two high school seasons.
After a celebration by Panther fans that lasted well into the evening at War Memorial Stadium, chances are he’ll have strong community support for that endeavor.
“Looking at the crew we have coming back, I feel kind of the same as I did last year,” said Panther coach Jim Stringer. “We’ll provide the kids with every opportunity over the winter, spring and summer to get bigger, faster and stronger. If a good number of them take advantage of that, then we’ll have as good a chance as anyone. I expect the level of competition wlll be stronger overall across the state next year, but when you look at the crew of kids we have coming back around, I think we’ve got the potential to get back there.”