Five hundred and 11 days. That’s how long it’s been since cheers emanated from Panthers Stadium for a home M-CHS football game.
For the Panthers squad playing for the first time Friday in front of their home fans in the 2021 spring season, the wait had been long enough.
M-CHS (1-1 3A West) played with an energy that electrified the home crowd, hanging right with 3A power Glenwood Springs for three quarters, before the Demons pulled away for a 27-12 victory.
In CHSAA’s contingency plan for spring football, M-CHS joined a number of schools along the I-70 corridor in the 3A West League, which meant that the Panthers would face off against larger schools, all while trying to rebuild the program under first-year head coach Ivan Mack.
If one thing became apparent to the Panthers faithful watching their team under the Friday night lights, this will be a high-octane, confident Panthers squad this season. With one of its largest rosters in years, the Panthers have fewer two-way players than in past seasons, allowing different rotations to keep players fresh deeper into the contest.
Right from the opening kickoff, the Panthers showed their propensity to take risks. Facing a fourth-and-long in their own territory on their first drive, Mack kept the offense out on the field. Even though M-CHS was unable to convert, the Panthers entrusted their defense with the task of stopping the Demons (2-0 3A West).
Led by senior linebacker Anthony Abeyta, the Panthers ‘D’ came through, forcing a turnover on downs to get the ball back.
Another Panther three-and-out led to a punt, and Glenwood Springs started to churn out yards on the ground. After a conversion on fourth down extended the drive, Demon senior Garrett Dollahan broke through the Panthers defensive front and scored from 15 yards out.
After trading punts, the M-CHS offense finally started to find its stride. Senior quarterback Ty Blackmer found classmate Korie Likes for a gain of 14 to set the Panthers up at midfield. However, facing a fourth-and-one a few plays later, the Panther offense couldn’t convert.
Just when it looked like Glenwood was engineering a drive to make it a two-score game, the Panthers defense stood tall again, as a junior John Carver came up with a stop with the Demons in the red zone.
The Panthers were forced to punt again after another short drive, but their defense flipped the script of the game moments later. After forcing Glenwood Springs backward with the combination of a penalty and sack, M-CHS took advantage of a bad snap on a Demon punt, and took over at the Demons 37 yard line with under 30 seconds left in the half.
Cue the big play. After a frustrating first half of near-misses for Blackmer trying to break down the Demons secondary, the QB finally bought himself enough time by stepping up in the pocket, before launching a strike to Likes in the end zone. The 37-yard connection closed the gap to 7-6, as the Panthers roared to the locker room with the momentum.
Out of the intermission, the Panthers offense picked up where it had left off, as Blackmer completed an 18-yard pass on fourth-and-11 to Likes, then a 26-yard laser to Carver. With the Panthers sniffing at the red zone for the first time all game, their drive finally ran out of steam, as Blackmer’s fourth-down pass from the Glenwood 25 fell incomplete.
Just like that, the whole game changed. Glenwood Springs, who had struggled trying to work the edges against a high-flying Panthers defense, opted to go with a misdirection on second down from their own 25. Demon junior Ray Rosenmerkel, who had scarcely touched the ball all game, caught the Panthers by surprise as he swept around the right side of the line and outraced the secondary to the end zone.
With a suddenly fired-up bench, the Demons continued to seize command of the game, scoring on each of their subsequent two possessions, a 15-yard run from Blake Nieslanik, followed by a 1-yard plunge from Brody Porter. In a span of a quarter, a one-point lead had ballooned to 21 for the visitors.
Not to go quietly, the Panthers manufactured their best offensive series of the night, as senior Josh Chupp hauled in a pair of big receptions, including a 17-yard snag to set up the Panthers at the Demon 5-yard line. Blackmer rolled out to find Likes for their second scoring strike of the night, to close the gap to 27-12 with four and a half minutes left.
The Demons would take their next offensive sequence and run most of the remaining clock out to seal the win.
Even in the losing effort, the Panthers walked off the field knowing that the program had made a major stride forward.
“The kids didn’t shrink away from the challenge,” said Mack, “and I couldn’t be more proud of that.”
After limiting Steamboat Springs to a field goal in their season-opening 12-3 victory, the Panthers followed it up with another stout defensive performance. “They were flying to the ball all night,” said coach Mack. “They’re realizing just how good they are, and that comes along with the confidence that this entire team is playing with now.”
Recognizing that he is fielding a youthful squad, Mack knows that there would be some growing pains this season.
“We’re starting three freshmen on the offensive line,” he said, “and all of younger players have brought great energy, and are going to continue to grow, even as we put them in challenging situations.”
Perhaps the biggest winner on the night was the community, as Panthers Stadium hosted its first sporting event in almost 17 months, and the community turned out to support the hometown team.
“It’s like a dream to be back,” said Mack. “We’re ecstatic to be back out playing in front of our fans again.”