On Friday night, in its first action of the season, the Powell High School football team routed the Riverton Wolverines. But it was something that happened on Saturday that first-year head coach Aaron Papich took pride in the most.
When lineman Macen Thomas’ helmet came apart during Saturday’s junior varsity game against Rocky Mountain, an unlikely crew of equipment managers on the Panthers’ sideline hustled into action.
“[Thomas] had a double-buckle malfunction, which meant the snaps busted off on his helmet,” said Papich. “A fix required pliers and a screwdriver. So [Thomas] ran off the field, and our varsity players, using tools they dug up somewhere, got both snaps replaced, and he was back in the game one play later.”
With how efficiently the players dealt with the problem, “I kinda joked that they were like a NASCAR pit crew,” Papich chuckled.
That the varsity squad was on the sidelines for the JV game, fixing equipment and running water out to the field during timeouts, was a testament to the kind of teamwork and sense of family Papich and his staff have been working to instill.
“Part of our culture is that ‘meaning’ matters,” he said. “It comes down to TEAM: Trust in the process, Effort, Attitude and the M is Meaning. These guys have a job, a role. Their purpose Saturday was to help support the JV players, and I think they did that great.”
Teamwork was also on display Friday at Panther Stadium, as Powell welcomed Riverton for a Zero Week matchup. In front of a large and boisterous home crowd (not to mention a sizable contingent that made the trip from Riverton), the Panthers racked up 491 yards of total offense and pounded the Wolverines 29-7.
“It was an awesome night in a great environment,” Papich said. “It was a lot of fun, definitely.”
The Panthers out-worked Riverton in nearly every statistical category, most notably in the rushing game. Powell gained 331 yards on the ground, led by the three-headed monster of senior Jacob Harrison, junior Brody Karhu and sophomore Kadden Abraham. Harrison finished with 148 yards on 21 carries, averaging 7 yards per carry and scoring twice. Karhu followed with 119 yards on 13 carries, averaging just over nine yards per touch, while Abraham totaled 43 yards — including 38 on one big run in the third quarter.
“Those guys ran very well, and our offensive line executed outstanding for so early in the season,” Papich said. “We’re really just trusting in the process. I think if we try to stick with the process, then the outcome will take care of itself.”
With just under 10 minutes to play in the first quarter, Panther senior Kaelan Groves blocked and recovered a Riverton punt, scampering untouched into the end zone for the first score of the game; the PAT was no good. The Wolverines answered two possessions later, putting together an impressive 82-yard drive that chewed up the remainder of the quarter and was capped by a 2-yard touchdown plunge by Cade Campbell. The point-after gave Riverton their first and only lead at 7-6.
The Panthers wasted no time on the ensuing drive, retaking the lead 9-7 on a 20-yard field goal by sophomore Ashton Brewer, the first of three he would have on the night. The Panthers scored again on their very next possession, as Harrison battled his way into the end zone from the 5 for his first score of the game.
The Panthers went into halftime with a 16-7 lead, something that didn’t happen often last season.
“It was kind of different at halftime,” Groves said. “Everyone comes in, and we’re realizing that this is the most fun we’ve had playing football in a couple of years.”
After a couple of nice returns in the first half, Powell senior Kanyon Gann got the crowd on its feet to start the second, returning the opening kickoff 90 yards for an apparent score. While the touchdown was nullified by a penalty on the return, the Wolverines’ special teams struggled to find an answer for Gann, who made something happen every time he touched the ball.
“It was a pretty exciting game,” Gann said. “Our line was doing great, our backfield — it was an all-around great effort by everybody.”
The Panthers drove the ball down to the Wolverines’ 25-yard-line, but a Groves pass intended for Gann in the end zone was picked off by Riverton’s Dillon Lange, ending that threat.
But the Panthers’ defense, led by Karhu, Groves and Seth Horton, continued to corral Riverton’s playmakers, giving Powell’s offense ample opportunity to work.
“They [Riverton] broke off a couple of big plays, and I wanted to see how our kids responded to that,” Papich said. “[Riverton quarterback] Treyton Paxton had some big plays especially some of his zone-read stuff; he broke off about a 50-60 yard run at one point, and it resulted in a turnover on downs when that series was over. Big-time play, but no points on the board: That’s what I want to see, if they could withstand something like that, and they did.”
Offensively, the Panthers controlled the tempo, running the no-huddle offense to great effect. The big guys up front continued to wear down Riverton’s defensive line, opening running lanes and keeping the Wolverines out of the backfield.
“Our game plan was definitely our tempo,” Papich said. “What we wanted to really key on was us dictating the speed of the game on offense. Nothing really changed with our play-calling. We just hurried things up and tried to keep the ball rolling.”
Harrison scored his second touchdown of the night with six minutes left in the third quarter; Brewer’s extra point gave the Panthers a 23-7 lead. Brewer would round out the scoring with a pair of long field goals in the fourth, hitting from 36 and 38 yards into the wind. The Panthers’ special teams accounted for 17 points on the night, while racking up 127 yards on returns.
“You don’t usually think of special teams, but that’s a third of the game,” Papich said. “[Special teams play] is really I think what changed the momentum of the game. When our special teams are scoring like with Kaelan [Groves]’s block, when we’ve got Gann returning punts and kicks 30 or 40 yards, that puts us in excellent position. On top of that, if we can get inside the 30, our likelihood of scoring is very high with a touchdown or a field goal. That’s amazing. It cuts the field about in half for us. It really frees us up with our calls, and it relaxes everybody because it gives us a lot of options.”
Asked if he was aware that Brewer, listed in the program as a defensive lineman, had that kind of range as a kicker, Papich laughed.
“No, I didn’t,” he said of Brewer, who moonlights as a soccer player in the spring. “But I really love his [Brewer’s] confidence. He’s not arrogant, he’s confident. He lines up and does his job, then runs off the field. It’s pretty awesome to see. He’s a real good kid, and a good competitor.”
Groves and Ethan Asher split time at quarterback, and Papich said he was pleased with the performances of both. In a run-dominated game, Asher completed three of seven passes for 33 yards, while Groves had no completions on four attempts. Papich said he and his staff will make a decision on a starter this week after reviewing game film.
“It’s a very difficult decision because they both executed, they rallied around their team and we couldn’t be happier with their performance,” he said.
Groves, who began the scoring with his blocked punt return for a touchdown, said there’s plenty to like about the Panthers, if this game was any indication.
“It was fun to watch our linemen and our running backs run so hard,” he said. “I saw Brody [Karhu] and Jacob [Harrison] breaking tackles all over the place, watching Kanyon [Gann] with those long returns, it was a lot of fun.”
Senior tight end Carson Heinen caught two passes for 29 yards, while receiver Trent Dicks hauled in one catch for 4 yards. For Heinen, who missed last season’s finale against Cody because of injury, it felt good to be back on the field.
“It had been a while, so it felt good just to be out there running around, having fun with the team,” he said. “There were first-game jitters, obviously, but we rallied together. We’re just trying to get aligned. After the first series, I think we just settled in.”
The Panthers travel to Worland Friday for the official start to the season, and Papich said the Warriors will be ready to play.
“This week, we’ll focus on what we do best, and just trust our system and the process,” he said. “We’re not letting emotion drive us, we’re letting discipline drive us, so it’s all about the process and executing. We have all the tools; it just now comes to putting the players into positions where they can be successful. We have great players; it’s our job as coaches to help them play great.”