What a difference a few weeks can make.
When the Powell High School football team squared off against Cody last month, the two teams were headed in opposite directions: The Broncs were undefeated …
What a difference a few weeks can make.
When the Powell High School football team squared off against Cody last month, the two teams were headed in opposite directions: The Broncs were undefeated and ranked second in the state in 3A, while the Panthers were coming off a demoralizing 36-0 loss to Star Valley. The Broncs pushed their record to 6-0 against the Panthers, winning 38-14 and handing Powell its third loss in four games. With the Panthers’ record sinking to 3-3, the Cody game served as a gut-check moment for PHS head coach Aaron Papich and his squad: Right the ship, or call it a season.
The Panthers chose the former. Fast-forward a month, and Powell is headed back to the 3A State Championship game for the first time since 2016, courtesy of a stunning 20-13 upset of the Broncs at Cody on Friday.
“This is unbelievable what these boys have accomplished, it’s all them,” Papich said after the game. “All the hard work they’ve put in this entire season and in the offseason — these seniors went [to the state championship game] as freshmen, and now they’re going back. It’s just incredible. It’s been their goal to play for the ‘ship, as they’ve called it, since the start of the season. They’re achieving what they set out to accomplish.”
The Panthers will take on Star Valley Friday for the 3A State Championship at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, a rematch of the last time Powell played for the title in 2016.
“It feels good to go back to state — I went my freshman year, and we always said we’d be back,” said team captain Carson Olsen. “It took us three years, but we’re there. And we’ll be ready to go.”
On Friday night in Cody, the Panthers scored on the game’s opening drive, an 80-yard, 8 1/2-minute masterpiece. It culminated in an 11-yard touchdown run on a counter boot by quarterback Landon Lengfelder.
Facing a fourth-and-1 from midfield during that drive, Papich gambled and the Panthers converted, moving the chains and keeping the drive alive.
“That was a key conversion for us,” Papich said of the fourth down call. “We also converted a couple of third downs on that drive, so the guys up front really stepped up.”
Long runs by Kadden Abraham and Toran Graham and a 21-yard completion from Lengfelder to Olsen highlighted the drive. Hawkin Sweeney drilled the PAT and the Panthers led 7-0.
“It was our intention from the start to establish the run, and our offensive line did a great job of creating space for the guys to run,” Papich said. “Toran [Graham] and Kadden [Abraham] did an awesome job of running through that space. That was a team effort right there.”
The two teams traded punts, and with their second possession of the game, the Broncs came out throwing. Cody’s Hunter Hays hit Tristan Blatt for a 50-yard touchdown strike, tying the game at 7-7.
Momentum shifted back to the Panthers just a few minutes later, as Brody Karhu, the team’s leading rusher the last two games, broke loose on a counter for a 51-yard score. Sweeney’s PAT made it 14-7 with just over nine minutes left in the first half.
“Brody [Karhu] has a fifth gear, and once he hits that gear, no one is catching him,” Papich said. “Our offensive line created that alley for him once again, and when he finds it, good things happen.”
The Panther defense continued to give Cody fits, stifling the Broncs’ running game and forcing punts on two subsequent drives.
“Our defense came up clutch. We made some big stops,” Olsen said. “We went into halftime knowing that defense wins ball games, and that we’d have to pull through in the second half.”
The Panthers’ Lane Shramek partially blocked a Cody punt, giving the Panthers excellent field position at the Bronc 22-yard-line. A pair of nice runs by Abraham and a 9-yard touchdown scramble by Lengfelder pushed Powell’s lead to 20-7. Sweeney’s PAT was blocked, but the Panthers went into the half with a two-score lead.
Karhu led the way in the first half for the Panthers, rushing for 70 yards and a touchdown. Abraham added 54 yards, while Lengfelder carried for 16 yards and two touchdowns.
Powell’s defense held Cody to zero yards rushing in the first half and 77 yards total.
It was a phenomenal first half, but Papich warned his players in the locker room not to get complacent.
“We want to win, no doubt, but we’re more task-oriented — one play at a time,” he explained. “The one thing standing in the way of going to the state championship game is a second half of football against a very good team. You get there one play at a time.”
After the Panthers’ defense forced a punt on the Broncs’ opening drive, the Powell offense took over on their own 18. Facing a punting situation of their own, Powell attempted a fake that Cody sniffed out immediately, getting the ball back deep in Panther territory.
Powell’s defense again proved up to the task, however, and with the help of a holding penalty that backed Cody out of field goal range, the Panthers dodged a bullet.
“Our defense was making plays from all over the place — our D-line was making big time plays,” Papich said. “Ryan Good and Toran Graham, Carson Olsen ... Riley Bennett in our secondary stepped up and made some big plays from the corner position, with the pass and the run.”
The Broncs’ halftime adjustments started to pay off on defense, and with just under six minutes left in the third quarter, Lengfelder lost the handle on a snap that Cody recovered. The Broncs took advantage, and an 8-yard touchdown pass from Hays to Charlie Beaudrie a few plays later cut Powell’s lead to 20-13.
That was as close as the Broncs would get, though, as Powell’s defense tightened the screws. Unable to get anything going on the ground on subsequent possessions, Cody was forced to go to the air with limited success.
“Cody’s a really, really good team, but I think we just really persevered through the whole game,” Graham said. “We were just firing on all cylinders on defense.”
A drive late in the fourth caused more than a few Powell fans to hold their collective breath, as a long pass from Hays to Blatt had the Broncs back in Powell territory with just under two minutes to play.
But two plays later, Adrian Geller came in on a blitz and met teammate Graham at the quarterback, sacking Hays at midfield. Faced with a fourth-and-17, Cody’s hook-and-ladder play came up short of the first down marker, allowing the Panthers to run out the clock for the win.
Karhu finished the game with 88 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown to lead the Panthers, followed by Abraham with 61 yards on 13 carries. Graham toted the ball six times for 29 yards.
Under center, Lengfelder completed one pass in five attempts, the 21-yarder to Olsen on the game’s opening drive. The quarterback got it done with his feet, however, scoring a pair of touchdowns on the ground.
Defensively for the Panthers, Geller led the way with 17 points, recording nine tackles and the big sack that helped seal the win. Graham followed with 15 points, including two sacks, while Olsen finished with 10 points.
Defensive lineman Nick Kwiat blocked a punt to finish with seven points.
“The difference this time around is we’re a healthy team,” Olsen said of how the Panthers went from a lopsided loss to Cody last month to Friday’s upset win.
“We had our starters back, and we carried the momentum from last game [an upset of Lander] into this one,” Olsen said. “We knew we could come off and fire strong ...”