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Panthers advance to state title game

PHS senior Hayden Cragoe leaves a Cody defender with a fistful of laundry during a QB keeper in Friday night’s semifinal victory. PHS senior Hayden Cragoe leaves a Cody defender with a fistful of laundry during a QB keeper in Friday night’s semifinal victory. Tribune photo by Carla Wensky

For the third time in as many years, the Powell Panthers’ season has been turned up to (week) 11.

The Panthers advanced to their third-consecutive 3A title game by defeating the Cody Broncs 26-13 Nov. 8 at Panther Stadium. Powell, which won the 2011 and 2012 titles, will play Douglas at 3 p.m. Friday in Laramie’s War Memorial Stadium for the state crown.

“It was the goal all along so we just feel extremely happy and relieved that we were able to take care of business,” said head coach Jim Stringer.

It was the second time in four weeks Powell beat the Broncs at home, but Friday’s semifinal tilt was much closer than the 35-0 shutout on Oct. 18.

“They were able to hold off a tough Cody team,” Stringer said of his squad. “That was a nice kind of learning (experience) in and of itself, to know you can get in a tough game and play well enough to pull out a win.”

Powell never trailed, but played unlike the team that made so many 3A opponents look foolish for even stepping onto the field. It took three timely takeaways to seal the game, which was still in doubt as late as midway through the fourth quarter.

Powell jumped to a 7-0 lead after it capped off a 5:21 drive with a Ty Herd touchdown run. The score came after a roughing the kicker penalty gave the Panthers’ stalled drive new life. Powell had marched down to the Cody 6-yard line, but a procedure and holding penalty backed them up to the 21, where they missed a field goal, but drew a flag.

Penalties, which were an issue for both teams the entire night, bit the Panthers on the ensuing kickoff. Powell’s kick coverage team was called offsides twice, and Cody began its first drive of the game on the PHS 47.

“We need to focus on the things that we can control,” Stringer said.

The Broncs took advantage of the short field and scored on a touchdown run a couple minutes later. Their PAT try, however, was no good, and Powell held on to a slim 7-6 lead.

The teams traded three-and-outs before the end of the first quarter.

The second frame opened with Powell’s biggest play from scrimmage. Quarterback Hayden Cragoe found tailback Cory Heny, who caught the ball in the open field and was untouched on his way to a 61-yard touchdown reception.

Heny caught two passes for 70 yards and the score.

Neither team was able to sustain a drive until the Panthers took over after a Cody punt with just under three minutes remaining in the half.

Powell drove from its own 41 down to inside the Cody 10, where Cragoe would throw his second touchdown pass of the game.

Cragoe rolled out to the right and tucked the ball away to draw in the defense.

“He was so instrumental in the way he set up that touchdown pass,” Stringer said.

When Cody’s secondary bit on the run, the senior quarterback quickly threw a touch pass to junior wideout Kalei Smith, who was wide open in the back-right corner of the end zone. Smith latched onto the ball and made sure to touch his feet down before his momentum took him out of bounds.

“Kalei’s hands lately have just been like glue,” Stringer said.

The point-after try was no good.

Smith’s score was set up by junior Carter Baxter’s 30-yard catch and run.

“It gave us a little breathing room and probably let us relax a little bit (in the locker room),” Stringer said.

Powell led 20-6 at halftime. The third quarter began to play out much like the second, with each team punting to the other.

The Broncs regained possession at its own 44 and looked to score on another short drive, but Powell’s Tony Lujan intercepted Jake Beaudrie’s pass for the first turnover of the game.

Lujan finished with four tackles for a loss, a fumble recovery, and interception in what Stringer called one of the best performances of the senior’s career.

The coach said Lujan’s play and experience inspired the rest of the team.

“He took on a leadership role and a role of confidence and stability that was almost comforting to all of us coaches,” Stringer said. “It set up an expectation that we were going to clean things up and we were going to play better.”

The Panthers drove 76 yards and scored their final points of the game on a Heny touchdown run. The PAT was no good and Powell led 26-6.

However, the three-score lead was short-lived.

Cody’s Noah Rivera returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and the Broncs tacked on the extra point.

In the span of 10 seconds both teams scored touchdowns and Cody cut Powell’s lead by one point.

“If there was one disappointment in the game, it was our special teams’ play, especially on the kickoff,” Stringer said.

Cody tried to ride the momentum with a surprise onside kick, but the ball didn’t travel 10 yards and Powell took over on Cody’s 43-yard line. The teams again traded dead-end possessions into the fourth quarter.

A Powell punt gave Cody the ball with 7:45 left in the game. The Broncs gained only 4 yards in three plays and were set to punt when Powell was called for an offsides penalty that made it fourth-and-one.

Cody ran it up the gut of the Panther defense and got just enough to convert and keep the Broncs’ hopes alive.

The Broncs moved the ball to the Panther 10 and forced Powell to call its first timeout. Cody came out of the timeout poised to make it a one-score game.

Cody’s Carter Myers ran to the left, but was wrapped up as he neared the end zone. Determined to score, Myers extended his arm to punch the ball over the plane, but the ball came loose and Lujan jumped on it for the fumble recovery and touchback.

Powell killed three minutes and punted the ball back to Cody with just 1:38 left in the game.

The Broncs’ desperation drive lasted only 42 seconds. The Panther defense, which stymied Cody’s passing game all night, came up big when it mattered most. Baxter, from his linebacker position, dove to intercept a pass that was just a couple feet off the ground to clinch the game for the Panthers.

Baxter had three solo tackles, seven assists and one tackle for a loss to go with his pick.

Cody quarterback Beaudrie was 2-for-7 for 21 yards and one INT, while Blake Hinze went 2-for-5 for 11 yards and one INT.

Two kneel downs iced the clock and Powell walked off winners of 24 games (regular and postseason) in a row.

Cragoe finished the game 7-of-15 for 175 yards and two scores. He also ran for 23 yards.

Senior Brendon Phister recorded six solo tackles, eight assisted tackles and one pass defense for the Panthers.

Powell gained 313 total yards. Cody gained 181 yards, 149 of which came on the ground.

Powell missed two point-after tries, plus a field goal that was waved off due to a defensive penalty.

Stringer said the Panthers will arrive in Laramie Thursday afternoon and conduct their pre-game practice at Laramie High School.

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