Style points may count for something on the dance floor, but on the football field, not so much.
With the Montezuma-Cortez Homecoming in full swing, in front of one of the largest crowds in recent memory at Panther Stadium, M-CHS made three touchdowns in the first quarter stand up through several lengthy delays, defeating Salida 19-0 to pick up their first league win of the season and fourth consecutive victory.
Making their first trip back to the state polls since a top-10 visit in 2014, M-CHS checked in at No. 10 in the CHSAA Coaches Poll, and they’re looking to make it a lengthy stay.
The fanfare reached a fever pitch with Motocross legend Eli Tomac of Cortez on hand to join the Panthers captains for the game’s opening coin toss, firing up countless starstruck youngsters in attendance, looking to follow in the motorcyclist’s footsteps.
With a festive atmosphere already well underway, M-CHS (5-1, 1-0 2A SWL) looked to keep the party going – and wasted little time providing the night’s first fireworks.
Sophomore Tay Wheat, who ranks among the state leaders in rushing yards through six games, showcased his breakaway ability on the game’s opening kickoff, sprinting in front of the Panther bench for a 75-yard return for a score. Freshman Isaac Dozal punched through the PAT, and 12 seconds in the contest, M-CHS led 7-0.
Orange-and-black clad fans has scarcely returned to their seats before the Panther defense brought them to their feet again on Salida’s first offensive play. Spartan junior quarterback Caiven Lake fumbled the ball, and M-CHS senior linebacker Dorrian Hilliard pounced on it at the Spartan 1-yard line.
Hilliard would take care of that final yard one play later, bulling through the line for the score and a 13-0 advantage, less than 40 seconds deep into the contest.
“That start got us pumped up,” said Hilliard of the early spark, “we were already hyped to come out and play, so it just boosted our confidence to start strong.”
From there, the Panthers kept the Spartan (3-3, 0-1 2A SWL) offense at bay, as a driving rainstorm limited the play selection for both head coaches. Taking advantage of a short Spartan punt, the Panthers moved 43 yards over a series of running plays, with a big gashing run from sophomore Mason Anderson setting up the Panthers inside the Spartan 5-yard line.
Senior quarterback Jake Blackmer capped the drive with a keeper up the middle, and the M-CHS advantage ballooned to 19-0 with 2:24 left in the opening quarter.
From there, the defense and special teams continued to dominate. Dozal enjoyed a spectacular day of punting, while sophomore Shyoki Knapp blocked a Spartan punt as well.
The Panthers collected five turnovers, including four fumble recoveries, as the Salida offense found little traction against the feisty Panther ‘D’. Junior Marcus Harris and sophomore Braiden Seymour disrupted the Spartan ground attack, and junior Dean York played another solid contest from his linebacker spot.
“We’re all ball-hawks,” added Hilliard, “we want to get out there, we want to hit somebody, and that’s our job – to make sure that nothing gets past us.”
A lengthy lightning delay at halftime forced the Panthers to manage their focus through the remaining 24 minutes of the contest, while also delaying the announcement of the Homecoming Court. After over an hour wait, Hilliard learned that he was named Homecoming King.
Meanwhile, the Panthers showed their grit to withstand yet another distraction in a week full of re-directed focus, and kept their composure to preserve the shutout. In a grinding second half, the Panthers kept the ball away from the Spartans – who were down to their second-string quarterback after Lake had to be stretchered off the field in the third quarter.
“We talked about it all week,” said Hilliard of the preparation amidst the Homecoming festivities, “It’s fun to have all these activities, but when we’re having a good season, it’s the football that matters the most.”
In the end, M-CHS avenged a 36-34 loss to Salida from a season ago, and turned away a late Spartan drive to produce their second shutout in as many weeks.
“One word that sums up this team is ‘heart,’” added third-year head coach Ivan Mack, “it was a full team effort, from the guys on the field to the guys on the sideline.”
An intriguing match-up awaits on the horizon, as the Panthers look to snap a seven-game losing streak against the Bayfield Wolverines (0-5) when the Southwest League foes meet next Friday, Oct. 7 from Wolverine Country Stadium at 7 p.m.