Down 28-6 at the half against a solid Lander team, Powell High School head football coach Aaron Papich knew the team waiting for him in the locker room was better prepared than the score would indicate.
Nor was he worried that his team was ready to roll over and concede defeat.
“Our coaching staff really got the guys going during halftime,” Papich said. “Coach Wiz [Waleryan Wisniewski], our offensive coordinator, had a good talk with the guys, and I think that helped them. But I think the kids themselves are really starting to believe in what they can do. Part of our training each week is how we respond to certain situations, and we really believe that if there’s still time on the clock, we have a chance.”
And respond the Panthers did, rattling off 20 unanswered points behind a poised performance by quarterback Ethan Asher and a stifling defense that held the Tigers scoreless in the second half.
But the stellar play exhibited by the Panthers in the second half wasn’t enough to overcome the miscues in the first. With 30 seconds left to play and Powell a two-point conversion away from tying the game, Asher’s pass to tight end Carson Heinen in the end zone came up short, sealing the 28-26 win for the Tigers.
“We were hoping it would have gone our way there towards the end,” Asher said. “But I think we definitely showed a lot of heart.”
“You saw so much growth out of our team from the first half to the second half,” Papich said. “We didn’t win, but I was very happy with how we finished. I really felt like we had the momentum.”
The Panthers struggled out of the gate, especially on offense. Named the permanent starter at quarterback earlier in the week, Asher threw three interceptions in the first half, including a pick-six by Lander defensive lineman Mason Cronk, who snatched a batted ball out of the air and rumbled 45 yards into the end zone for the score.
The Panthers’ offense began to click late in the second quarter, however, and with 37 seconds left in the half, Asher hit a wide open Kaelan Groves on a slant for a 28-yard score. The Tigers went into the locker room with a 28-6 lead, as Cronk’s interception for a touchdown was the final play of the half.
“You never quite make it to what you’re chasing, you’re never going to be perfect, but you can sure try,” Papich said. “You have to be ready every single time. If you have a bad play, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, you just gotta get ready and go again. Hanging your head isn’t going to help you on the next one. You have to just stay in the moment and stay focused all of the time.”
If the first half was all Lander, the second was anything but, as the Panthers returned to the field with the first half seemingly forgotten.
“I think a lot of people just turned it on at halftime,” said Panther running back and linebacker Brody Karhu. “That first half, a lot of blocks weren’t being made, there were a lot of missed tackles and bad reads. But that second half, people just flipped the switches and were ready to go.”
Powell opened the half by driving deep into Lander territory, highlighted by a 33-yard completion from Asher to Heinen. Asher helped his own cause by scoring on a quarterback keeper from the 11-yard line on the next play to cut the lead to 28-12.
“That second half, he [Asher] really started to settle in and gained a lot of confidence,” Papich said. “What a response that he had to that first half. He had three interceptions in the first half, and I think a lot of kids in that position would be rattled. But he was just focused, and he has a big heart. He acted like a veteran going into the second half — all business.”
Powell would score twice more, as Dalton Woodward — a fixture for the Panthers on defense last week against Worland — proved an offensive threat as well, catching a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Asher to cut the lead to 28-26. But that was as close as Powell would get, as Lander escaped with the win.
“We’re at a very good place as a team,” Papich said. “The scoreboard didn’t show a win, but the way we finished — shutting them out in the second half and scoring 20 unanswered points — we felt really good with that. We figured out a lot of things in that game, and we’re just going to continue to refine those things to carry us through the season.”
Offensively, the Panthers amassed 413 yards of total offense, with an almost equal split of rushing and passing. Asher finished with 14 completions on 28 attempts for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
“I personally didn’t have all that great of a first half, so I was getting kind of down on myself,” Asher said. “I think we all felt that way a little bit. But the coaches did a good job of keeping everybody motivated, and a couple of the other players just helped pick everyone back up. They helped us believe that we weren’t out of it.”
Woodward and Groves were Asher’s favorite targets, pulling in five balls apiece for 51 and 75 yards, respectively. Heinen finished with the one catch for 33 yards, setting up the Panthers’ second score of the game.
Junior Brody Karhu led the way for Powell on the ground, rattling off 73 yards on 14 carries. Karhu gave Panther fans a bit of a scare in the fourth quarter after he was helped off the field following a run, but he returned a few plays later.
“I had a double-leg cramp; both of them cramped up on me,” Karhu said. “It wasn’t anything too severe, and I was super-happy about that. After I blew past the line, some guys finally got on me. I kept my legs going, and at that point they cramped up on me.”
Proving to be an all-purpose weapon on offense, Groves finished with 58 yards on nine carries. The senior finished with 133 total yards for the game.
“He [Groves] has really shown how dynamic of an athlete he is in these first two games,” Papich said. “With Ethan [Asher] at quarterback, I think the two of them really played well off each other. They’re a pretty good pair to have in the backfield.”
Defensively, Panther Kadden Abraham led the team with 22 points, followed by Woodward with 18 and Karhu with 16. Heinen, Adrian Geller and Ryan Good also finished in double digits, with 15, 13 and 13 points respectively. The Panthers held Lander, ranked second in the state in 3A in passing coming into the contest, to just 82 yards through the air.
“They’re the heart of the team, those guys,” Papich said of the Panthers’ defense. “They really played hard. I couldn’t be happier with how they played.”
The Panthers travel to Douglas Friday to take on the fifth-ranked Bearcats, winners of their first two games.
“[Douglas] is a very technically-sound team,” Papich said. “They’re a very physical team, their backers on defense fill immediately. If you make a little mistake, they’ll capitalize on it. We need to tighten some stuff up and bring our A game.”
“The way we performed that second half, we played really tough, fantastic on both sides of the ball,” he said. “We’ll be a really tough team to beat if we can play like that all four quarters.”