AZTEC – Montezuma-Cortez football head coach Ivan Mack has a lot to be excited about, even after his squad came up short on the scoreboard Friday in the team’s season opener.
The Panthers put together a spirited display, but couldn’t quite finish several impressive drives, falling short at Aztec, 26-6.
With a roster full of underclassmen, M-CHS came flying out of the gate, starting with a fiery defensive display. Sophomore linebacker Shyoki Knapp announced his presence in the game on the first series, sacking Aztec (1-1) quarterback Landan Frost to force a three-and-out.
“The mantra of this team is defense,” Mack said after the game. “We’ve got guys who are fully buying in to that.”
The Panthers offense had their fair share of big plays in the opening quarter, as junior Jake Blackmer took the starting role in the first half. He connected with freshman running back Tay Wheat, whose flashy runs set the Panthers up in Aztec territory twice in the opening quarter. A big strike from Blackmer to classmate Zander Cruzan moved the Panthers in to the red zone on their second drive, but a sequence of penalties ultimately stalled the drive.
M-CHS (0-1) hadn’t given Frost any time to work, as junior Dorrian Hilliard and freshman Micah Vrtatko controlled the trenches. However, the game shifted late in the first quarter, when Frost finally had a chance to look downfield. On Aztec’s first positive yardage play of the game, Frost connected with speedster Tristen McNeal, who broke free for an 81-yard score to put Aztec up, 6-0.
The Panthers responded with another lengthy drive into Tiger territory, but this time, were waylaid by a fumble. Aztec gave the football back a play later, but the Panthers committed their second turnover in quick succession, setting up Aztec at midfield in the latter stages of the opening half.
As the Tigers finally started to get traction offensively, the Panthers tried to avoid falling behind two scores before halftime. However, on the final play of the half, Frost found Baylor Seabolt in the corner of the end zone from six yards out, and Aztec, in spite of being thoroughly outgained in total yards, led 12-0 heading to the locker room.
Mack called upon senior captain Aca Dennison to take the signal-calling duties in the second half, and the Panthers continued to move the ball effectively. Another Panthers drive in the third quarter stalled inside the Aztec 15-yard line. The hosts then drove down the field, and on fourth-down, Frost found McNeal for their second connection, making the score 20-0 after three quarters.
The Aztec quarterback then added a fourth TD early in the final stanza, running in from four yards out to build the lead to 26-0.
M-CHS showed the fight of a team that has visions of being a four-quarter unit, as the Panthers ran a trick play on their very next opportunity from scrimmage. Dennison found junior Caden Cote in the flat, and as the Tiger defense converged to make the tackle, Cote flipped the ball to classmate Ryder Higgins, who scooted 65 yards along the Panther sideline on the hook-and-ladder to break up the shutout.
After forcing a punt, the Panthers had one more chance at the end zone, but time ran out on the Panthers on their third red zone trip. On the night, the Panthers went 0-for-3 on trips in to the red zone, something which Mack hopes to address before week two.
“The turnovers hurt us,” said Mack, “and so we know we’re going to focus on taking care of the ball.” The Panthers outgained Aztec 266 to 246 on the night, but had four giveaways and a couple of turnovers on downs.
With split time at quarterback between Dennison and Blackmer, Mack indicated that he wanted both quarterbacks to have an opportunity to facilitate the offense.
Even in the loss, Mack found numerous positives to take to their home opener next weekend. “I thought the effort was great,” said Mack, “we’re proud of them.”
The home crowd will get to cheer on M-CHS football for the first time this upcoming week, when Cedaredge visits for a 7 p.m. kickoff on Friday, Sept. 3 at Panther Stadium.
Coverage of Panther football on local radio station, 98.7 KRTZ, kicks off with the pre-game commencing at 6:30 p.m. and kickoff slated for 7 p.m. against the Bruins.