Heading into Friday’s state quarterfinal contest against the top-seeded team out of Class 3A East, the Powell High School football team was still an enigma. Injuries at key positions throughout …
Heading into Friday’s state quarterfinal contest against the top-seeded team out of Class 3A East, the Powell High School football team was still an enigma. Injuries at key positions throughout the season had coaches, players and fans wondering just how good this team could be with a healthy complement of players.
That mystery was solved Friday night. Braving chilly temps and a Lander team looking to avenge the only blemish on its regular season record, the Panthers played their most complete game of football this season. Racking up a season-high 471 yards on offense (352 on the ground), Powell got off to a fast start and never looked back, downing the Tigers 41-14 in impressive fashion. The win puts the Panthers on a collision course with cross-county rival Cody Friday in the state semifinals.
“It was definitely a special night for our team,” said PHS head coach Aaron Papich, making his first appearance in the playoffs as coach of the Panthers. “We had a lot of momentum going right from the beginning, and those boys didn’t let up — they kept going for four quarters, which was what we wanted.”
The Panthers’ opening drive was methodical, marching 71 yards to the Lander 3-yard line behind solid runs by the three-headed monster in the backfield: tailbacks Kadden Abraham and Brody Karhu and bruising fullback Toran Graham. Powell was also aided by a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty on the Tigers for a late hit on quarterback Landon Lengfelder.
Graham scored on a 3-yard plunge; Hawkin Sweeney hit the PAT, and the Panthers led 7-0 with 5:51 left in the first quarter.
Lander came out throwing on their first possession of the game, a strategy that proved costly. On the Tigers’ second play from scrimmage, Powell’s Riley Bennett stepped in front of a Ty Massey pass for an interception, giving the Panthers the ball at the Lander 31.
“We were really hyped, really excited to be in a playoff game, and it showed from the start,” Bennett said. “I just kept my head in the game, flying around and having fun.”
Powell continued to pound the run, and with a second-and-goal at the 1, Lengfelder called his own number for the Panthers’ second touchdown. With the extra point, the Panthers were up 14-0 with a minute left in the first quarter. Both scoring drives were dominated by a grind-it-out running attack.
“We just stuck to our gameplan, which was run the ball down their throat,” Lengfelder said. “Everyone played like it was their last game.”
Lander finally settled in on the ensuing drive, halving the lead to 14-7.
The host team’s momentum was short-lived, however. Powell answered with another sustained drive, led by two 24-yard passes from Lengfelder to Carson Olsen and Jesse Trotter that put the Panthers at the 4-yard line. Lengfelder then made his second 1-yard touchdown run of the night; Sweeney’s PAT pushed the lead back to 21-7.
“It just makes a tremendous impact for our running game when our passing game gets open,” Papich said. “Lengfelder and Olsen were in sync that first half, and that just opened up so much for our backs. We’re known for our running game, but I’m always confident in our passing game as well, and I think that was a difference-maker this game.”
On Lander’s next possession, the Panthers’ defense again proved opportunistic, causing a fumble that Olsen alertly fell on.
“It comes down to our defensive line and linebackers. Those guys are filling gaps,” Papich said. “Our defense is gap-sound, and once that happens, the only place you can go is the outside. Once they bounce out, our secondary rolls down for support. It was fun to watch.”
Powell broke the game open a few plays later, as Karhu scampered for a 19-yard touchdown. The point-after made it 28-7 — a lead the Panthers took into the half.
“Our staff did an excellent job of putting our players in a position to be successful out there,” Papich said. “Coach [Chase] Kistler did an awesome job of leading our offense, as did our eyes in the sky in the booth, just seeing things we could capitalize on.”
Despite the three-score lead, Papich still had cause for concern — the Tigers had been down 20-6 at half against Douglas a few weeks ago, only to mount a second-half comeback and win 31-26.
“We told the guys, ‘Hey, these guys want to play in Laramie just as bad as you do,’” Papich said. “You get there one play at a time. You can’t be looking at the scoreboard — you have to keep going like it’s 0-0 all over again.”
It was a scoreless third quarter, though the Panther defense again came up big, holding the Tigers on a goalline stand on Lander’s opening drive of the half.
In the fourth quarter, Abraham scored from 19 yards out on a third-and long to push the lead to 35-7. The Tigers answered with a 57-yard scoring drive to make it 35-14, but Abraham scored on Powell’s next possession to close out the 41-14 win.
The Panthers finished with 352 yards rushing, led by Abraham with 139 yards and two touchdowns. Karhu had 93 yards and a score, while Graham picked up 73 yards and the game’s opening touchdown.
It was a solid return under center for Lengfelder, who completed six passes for 89 yards and a pick while rushing for another 36 yards and a pair of scores. Olsen caught three passes for 33 yards, while Trotter had one catch for 24 yards. Reed Smith and Garrett Stutzman added a catch each for 18 and 14 yards, respectively.
Powell’s offensive output was made even more impressive by the play of the offensive line. The big guys up front opened big holes, while giving Lengfelder room to work on passing downs. Anchored by junior guard Geordan Weimer and sophomore Carter Gines, Papich said it’s always fun to watch an offensive lineman leading backs into the secondary.
“Geordan Weimer is a guy who hasn’t missed a practice, a game or a snap on offense the entire season,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun watching him on film, because when he’s pulling, it’s almost seamless for our backs to come right off his butt when he kicks out. He’s always finding someone to hit, leading the way and running like a fullback out there in space.”
Weimer was quick to praise his linemates, as well as the backs for knowing how to read the blocks.
“There’s a lot of communication between the linemen and the backs,” he explained. “Sometimes we have to change the direction of the play depending on what the defense is showing us, so we have to be talking. It’s a lot of fun when it works, and we had it working.”
The Panthers’ defense was stellar as well, holding Lander to 252 yards. Olsen once again led the charge with 22.5 defensive points, including eight tackles, a blocked kick and a fumble recovery. Adrian Geller followed with 11 points, while Stutzman added nine points and Bennett eight.
“We rotated in Brailey Gann on defense as well, and he did a nice job closing on the ball and stepping up,” said Papich of the junior, who broke up a pair of passes and recorded two tackles.
The Panthers now set their sights on Cody, who beat Worland 55-26 last week.