ASPEN – After honing their run defense through a pair of hard-fought outings to begin the season, Montezuma-Cortez ran into an Aspen team that enjoys throwing the ball just as much as the Panthers.
Trading aerial displays with the host Skiers, M-CHS fell short in a back-and-forth thriller, 40-28.
Hot off of their emergence into the CHSAA Coaches’ Poll at No. 8 in the 3A rankings, the Panthers entered their trip to Aspen looking to solidify their status as a contender for a postseason berth.
Meanwhile, after scoring 12 points in each of their first two contests, head coach Ivan Mack hoped the offensive strides that his team saw late in their game against Glenwood Springs would extend into their Spring Break road trip to face the Skiers.
It didn’t take long for the Panthers (1-2 3A West League) to get the offense in gear. Less than a minute into the contest, senior quarterback Ty Blackmer cashed in on good field position, as he found classmate Josh Chupp from seven yards out to give the Panthers an early 6-0 lead.
The Skiers (1-2, 3A West League) responded through the air, as wide receiver Judd Gurtman gave fits to the Panther secondary, taking a pass from sophomore Nate Thomas to provide the Skiers with an 8-6 lead.
M-CHS continued their early offensive success, as Blackmer managed another efficient drive into the Aspen red zone. Junior receiver John Carver capped the drive with a three-yard reception, and with a successful two-point conversion, the Panthers regained the lead, 14-8.
The lead was short-lived. Aspen answered with Gurtman’s second score of the game less than 30 seconds later, as the Skier scored from 12 yards out to knot up the score. Aspen would score two minutes later to take a 20-14 lead to cap an eventful first quarter of scoring.
Blackmer fired right back, as the Panthers struck with another big play. Senior Korie Likes got in behind the Aspen secondary to haul in a Blackmer strike from 46 yards away to tie the score again.
However, the pass-happy Aspen offense broke through the M-CHS secondary twice in the final six minutes of the half, including Gurtman’s third receiving score right after a Blackmer interception, to build a 32-20 edge heading into the locker room.
Switching gears to begin the second half, Blackmer and the offense turned to the ground game, where senior Kyler Krob gashed the Skier defense for big chunks, taking the Panthers into the red zone. Facing a third down deep in Skier territory, Blackmer tossed his third interception of the night, denying the Panthers from cutting into the deficit.
After the defense stepped up to force a Skier punt, senior David Christian gave the Panthers an offensive spark, driving the ball deep into Skier territory. However, a fumble moments later stymied another M-CHS drive.
The Panthers rolled the dice on fourth-and-long from their side of midfield on the first play of the fourth quarter, and Likes snagged a fantastic grab to keep the drive alive.Then, with the game in the balance, Blackmer took a broken play on fourth-and-19 and scrambled for a flashy 32-yard run to drive the Panthers inside the Skier five-yard line.
On fourth-and-goal, Blackmer called his own number again, diving for the goal line to sneak the ball across for a pivotal score to bring the Panthers within four.
Three unlikely fourth down conversions on one drive, and the Panthers climbed within 32-28 with eight minutes to go.
However, Aspen broke Panther hearts moments later with a 78-yard touchdown on their first play of the subsequent drive, as Thomas fired his sixth touchdown pass of the contest.
Fired up, the hosts turned away the last Panther push to pick up their first win in 3A West League play.
M-CHS will cap off their truncated home schedule with a Saturday, April 10th meeting against Coal Ridge. The Panthers will celebrate their seniors in their final regular season home game with a 2 p.m. kickoff from Panther Stadium.