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Cortez’s historic run ends in state football’s semifinals

Third-year head coach Ivan Mack has been building the Panthers into one of the biggest surprises in the state.(David Robinson/Montezuma-Cortez High School)
Eaton knocks out Panthers with strong ground game

Sixty-five years.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was in office the last time that M-CHS played in the state semifinals, a 1957 victory over Canon City – setting up the only ever state championship appearance for Cortez football.

Historical context aside, the Panthers football program can reflect on a special season that will live long in the memories of a hard-nosed group that finished up their spectacular 2022 season with a 47-8 loss to two-time defending state champion Eaton in the 2A state semifinals.

For nine seniors, it’ll be the last time that they don the orange-and-black on the gridiron, but for a program searching for consistent success, 2022 could possibly serve as a watershed campaign in M-CHS’ trajectory.

M-CHS (8-4) fell behind 25-0 after a quarter on the field turf of Eaton on a chilly mid-November day, but for a program not used to playing into November, the final score won’t define a season filled with Panthers fourth-quarter comebacks, dominant defensive play, and a highly-entertaining brand of run-and-gun football.

Third-year head coach Ivan Mack has been building numbers over the past few seasons, and the larger roster, combined with stronger offseason commitment, turned the Panthers into one of the biggest surprises in the state – climbing into the state polls at the midway point of the campaign.

Eaton’s multipronged rushing attack pushed the ball downfield against the M-CHS defense, as the Reds scored on each of their first three possessions to build a 20-0 edge.

M-CHS’ defense, which has been opportunistic all season, turned away a fourth score late in the opening quarter with a fumble recovery near the goal line. However, the No. 2 Reds (11-1) sacked senior quarterback Jake Blackmer in the end zone for a safety, then added a pair of field goals to build a 28-0 lead.

A long touchdown reception from Eaton senior Zac Grable pushed the game to running clock right before the half, but the Panthers responded with the determination to finish their season with heads held high.

Senior Dorrian Hilliard plunged in from a yard out in the fourth quarter to get the Panthers on the board, and served as a curtain call for the Panthers seniors that served as a cornerstone piece in a program looking to make postseason appearances into an annual tradition.

Class of ’23 receiver Zander Cruzan, along with classmates Blackmer, Caden Cote, Ryder Higgins, Alec Manuel Jr. and a number of other Panthers seniors brought a vibrancy back to Panther Stadium that hadn’t been felt in a long time.

The Reds, meanwhile, advance to the 2A state championship game in Pueblo on Saturday, Nov. 26 at 6 p.m., where they will face No. 1 Delta (12-0), who outlasted No. 4 TCA 24-17 in their semifinal contest. Eaton seeks a three-peat, while Delta looks to rebound from a heartbreaking loss in the 2019 state title game, a 27-19 defeat at the hands of Sterling.

The Panthers, meanwhile, hope that the six-decade drought between state semifinal appearances becomes a distant memory, as they have built a foundation for years to come.