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Montezuma-Cortez football hits the ground running

Jake Blackmer throws a pass to receiver Zander Cruzan in this file photo. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Panthers aim for first postseason trip since 2018

Four quarters.

It’s one of the mantras flying around the Montezuma-Cortez football practices as the Panthers shift from offseason to prepare for their 2022 campaign.

After a season full of close calls, the Panthers seek to turn around a 3-6 mark from 2021 as head coach Ivan Mack has an experienced group back preparing to take a step toward contending in the 2A Intermountain League.

Spearheading that group, the Panthers carry an upperclassmen-laden offensive and defensive line, looking to provide time for a number of athletic playmakers in the M-CHS backfield and receiving core.

“We’ve been playing together since we were kids,” said senior tackle Alec Manuel Jr., “and we’ve developed a really good connection.”

Ben Bradley/Special to The JournalMontezuma-Cortez senior offensive lineman Alec Manuel Jr. blocks a defensive lineman in a preseason scrimmage against Cuba (New Mexico) High School at Panther Stadium.

The Panthers have a strong stable of returning backs, including senior fullback Dorrian Hilliard and classmate Ryder Higgins. The duo look to complement the dynamic big-play capabilities of sophomore Tay Wheat, who took the league by storm last year in his freshman campaign.

“We’ve really focused on our run-blocking,” added Manuel. “It’s important that we’re getting off the ball sooner, and holding our blocks.”

Manuel and company will aim to protect senior Jake Blackmer, who takes the helm for the M-CHS offense after a season in which he split time at the signal caller position.

“He went to several quarterback camps this offseason,” said Mack of his starting QB. “He’s been preparing hard, and has better arm strength and speed – and that’s going to translate into making him more dangerous out there.”

Tay Wheat avoids tacklers on his way to a 61-yard pass play for a Panthers touchdown. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)

As the Panthers aim to be more multidimensional than their pass-happy recent seasons, Mack hopes that the balance will open up more opportunities for single-coverage on athletic receivers Zander Cruzan and Caden Cote, both entering their final years for the orange-and-black.

“A lot more guys are going to see more touches this year,” added Mack. “We’re wanting to take what the defense gives us, and find different ways to push the ball down the field.”

Mack’s defense from a season ago included a staggering number of freshmen, and while the Panthers faced a steep learning curve in 2021, the Panther head coach hopes that the defense will continue to play with the same intensity this season.

“We’re already ahead of where we were at this point a year ago,” lauded Mack of his team’s ability to relearn their system. “There's definitely more maturity with this group, and the confidence has come along with that.”

M-CHS opens its season Saturday, Aug. 27, at home against Aztec, hoping to avenge last year's season-opening loss. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. from Panther Stadium, with local radio coverage on 98.7 KRTZ and krtzradio.com.

The Panthers then face a few foes that they haven’t seen for a long time, including road games against Rifle, Kirtland Central and North Fork (combined team from Paonia and Hotchkiss). M-CHS hosts Ignacio on Sept. 23 before a homecoming meeting with Salida on Sept. 30 that will open IML play.

The Intermountain League welcomes Delta to the mix for the 2022-2023 realignment cycle, while league stalwarts Bayfield, Alamosa, and Pagosa Springs fill out the remaining contests on the Panthers schedule.

Ben Bradley/Special to The JournalThe Montezuma-Cortez offense gets set to run a play against Cuba (NM) High School in a scrimmage at Panther Stadium.