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January 04, 2013 8:32 am

What a finish

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The Powell Panthers raise the 3A state championship football trophy following a 13-10 victory over Star Valley in November. The Panthers’ successful defense of the 3A title was one of many fall highlights in 2012. The Powell Panthers raise the 3A state championship football trophy following a 13-10 victory over Star Valley in November. The Panthers’ successful defense of the 3A title was one of many fall highlights in 2012. Tribune photo by Ben Wetzel

Late months bring Powell much attention

(Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series looking back at the highlights of the 2012 year in sports around Powell.)

As the summer calendar gave way to fall, Powell found itself as the center of focus in both the state and national sports scene. Much of that excitement was stirred by the gridiron efforts of the Panther football team.

As the defending state champion, Powell opened the gridiron season with a number one ranking and a huge target on its back. One by one, opponents took aim at Powell. One by one, they all fell.

The Panthers opened the season with back-to-back shutouts of Miles City and Riverton. Historically tough Buffalo rolled into town in time to watch Cory Heny take the opening kickoff of the first-ever varsity contest at the new Panther Stadium all the way back for a touchdown in a 41-14 Powell win.

Lopsided wins over Torrington and Jackson followed, setting the stage for a Homecoming night showdown in Powell between the No. 1 Panthers and No. 2 Star Valley. Despite an hour-long lightning and weather delay that pushed the kickoff and festivities late into the night, Panther fans endured the persistent drizzle to watch their team deliver a 13-0 victory.

The Panthers wrapped up the regular season by outscoring Worland, Cody and Green River by a collective score of 155-13 to gather the 3A West champion’s trophy. But that wasn’t the hardware this bunch was after.

The Panthers climbed past Lander 36-0 in the quarterfinals. Green River returned to town in the semifinals, but went home on the short side of a 13-3 decision, sending the Panthers back to Laramie for a rematch with Star Valley.

While the Panthers found themselves trailing for the first time all season in that contest, Hayden Cragoe’s late-game touchdown pass to Dewey Schwahn helped lift the Panthers to a 13-10 victory and back-to-back state titles.

The Panthers’ defense turned heads throughout the year, holding opponents to an average of just under 162 yards of offense and 4.5 points per game. A secondary that began the year with new starters at virtually every defensive slot produced a likely state record of 31 interceptions.

Panther football wasn’t the only team in town to be turning heads last fall, however. The Northwest College men’s soccer program kept folks entertained into the month of November as well.

The Trapper men opened the season ranked nationally, but dropped two of their first three games. The team quickly righted ship to win nine of their next 10, but late-season stumbles at Otero and Laramie County prevented the NWC men from earning a regular-season regional title.

The defending 2011 champion Trappers thus entered the post-season as the No. 3 seed, easily securing a first-round tournament victory over Western Nebraska. The  Trappers won a thrilling 4-3 shootout contest against rival Otero in the semifinals, but were unable to match that energy level the next day, losing in the regional final by a 2-1 final score.

That’s when things began to get interesting. The Trappers returned home under the somber impression that their season had come to an end. It hadn’t.

Trapper head coach Rob Hill learned the following day that the top two teams from the region had received a place in the district tournament. With its season resurrected, the Trappers capitalized by knocking off nationally-ranked Yavapai by a 4-2 final margin. Northwest followed by exacting a 1-0 measure of revenge on Western Wyoming in the district championship game.

In the process, the Trappers earned their first-ever berth in the NJCAA national soccer championships. Unfortunately, the dream season would come to an end in Georgia as the Trappers lost back-to-back games against Louisburg and Cincinnati State Tech as second-half letdowns cost the team in both games.

Men’s soccer wasn’t the only program earning national attention in the fall, however. Trapper women’s soccer came just one victory away from also making a district tournament appearance, falling to Western Wyoming by a goal in a play-in contest that saw Northwest own a commanding advantage in both time of possession and shots on goal.

The Trapper women did produce a national player of the week, however in sophomore Samhia Simao, who also set single-season and career scoring marks for the program. Collectively, both Northwest soccer programs produced three All-American performers this fall.

Not to be outdone, the Trapper volleyball team was getting some national exposure on the way to an undefeated regular-season Region IX North title. Freshman outside hitter Ana Jakovljevic’s kill totals were eye popping enough that the NJCAA declared her the national player of the week twice over the course of the season.

Northwest College went into the postseason regional tournament as the No. 1 seed, but an early loss to Casper College placed the Trapper women on the elimination half of the bracket, where the team was unable to win its way to a national tournament berth.

Girls’ sports at Powell High School were setting some records in the fall as well. The Panther girls’ golf team finished as the state runner-up, marking the program’s best-ever finish. Alyssa Hildebrand (tie-fourth) and Tess Mitchell (eighth) both finished among the individual top 10.

The Panther boys, who began the year as the defending state champions in 3A golf, again earned some hardware, but were forced to settle for third-place this time around. Defending individual state champ Bowen Prestwich placed fourth in 2012 while teammate Pax Mitchell scored a tie for sixth place.

Meanwhile, the Panther volleyball team worked overtime at the 3A state tournament in Casper before finishing fourth in the state. The Panthers, who advanced to the state tournament with a runner-up finish at the 3A West regional tournament, won their state opener in a game that featured two extended sets.

Against eventual state champion Torrington, Powell captured the first game before losing 3-1 and dropping to the elimination bracket.

There, the team battled Newcastle, staving off elimination in a 32-30 extended fourth game before prevailing 26-28, 25-12, 19-25, 32-30, 15-9. It was more of the same in the third-place match as Powell and Douglas went toe-to-toe before Powell fell 23-25, 25-14, 18-25, 25-18, 15-10 to wrap up its season.

Even outside the realm of organized sports, Powell fans were hearing about success. Powell bull rider Kanin Asay and Cowley bareback rider J.R. Vezain both qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo after enjoying outstanding seasons inside the rodeo arena. Meeteetse bullfighter Dusty Tuckness was named the PRCA’s bullfighter of the year for the third consecutive season, then showed why he was worthy of the award, getting knocked unconscious while distracting a bull from a downed rider during one of the NFR’s later rounds.

Powell teen Alex Aguirre won the 12-14 age division in the San Diego half-marathon, running a split time that would qualify him for the prestigious Boston Marathon. Aguirre, however, is four years too young to race on that prestigious stage. Aguirre has his eyes set on eventual triathlon participation.

Gene Shuler captured his fifth career state horseshoe title. It marked the third consecutive state title for Shuler, who has competed in three of the last four state championshp tournaments.

As fall transitioned to winter, the Panther and Northwest College wrestling teams were both grabbing early-season success on the state and national levels. Powell boys’ basketball began the year ranked No. 2 in the state, but it was the Panther girls who ended 2012 sporting a ranking, having appeared as high as No. 3 in the 3A polls before settling in at No. 4 as school broke for the winter recess.

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