With just three seniors on the roster, the Panthers have relied heavily on juniors and underclassmen this season, compiling a 4-9-2 record prior to the state play-in game in Worland.
But the team that squared off against Douglas (5-11-1) on Friday played like a team of veterans, holding the Bearcats to just nine shots on goal and outscoring them 4-2 in a shootout to advance to next weekend’s state tournament in Jackson.
“It was an amazing game,” said Powell head coach Jeff Dent. “The guys really excelled in the possession game, and the finishing drills were paying off. They were getting it up front and working it, getting great shots. We just weren’t getting it into the net.”
The Panthers finished the game with an astounding 34 shots on goal, by far the most they’ve attempted in a single match this season. But despite spending the majority of the game attacking the Douglas zone, goals proved to be elusive.
“The boys started the game aggressive — something we’d had a little bit of a problem with over the season,” Dent said. “But with this game, when they stepped out on that field, they were ready to play. They took off and got after it.”
After two full halves of play and two shortened overtime halves, the score remained knotted at 0-0.
Dent said it was really good to see his team control the game, though, “The fact that we were taking so many shots and not scoring made me real nervous.”
“I was talking to the stat guy at the half, and he says, ‘We’ve got so many shots,’ and I said yeah, we should have a goal by now,” he said.
Douglas began to play boot ball in the second half in an effort to utilize its quickness and split the Panthers’ defense. But Powell was ready for it, and adjusted accordingly.
“Our defense would have to work hard on those boots when they got through,” Dent said. “But the boys stepped up and we were holding them really well. There were a lot of offsides calls against Douglas.”
With the game headed into overtime on a 0-0 score, Dent admitted to being “more than a little nervous” at his team’s inability to find the back of the net.
“I wasn’t sure what to say to them at halftime and the end of the game; they were doing everything we asked them to do,” Dent said. “The only thing you could tell them was, ‘Get it into the net!’”
After two scoreless OT halves, the game came down to a shootout to see who would advance to Jackson.
“It was still 0-0; I couldn’t believe it,” Dent said. “When time was running out in that second overtime, I had to step back and write out my shootout list, just in case. Then, sure enough, here it came.”
In a shootout, each team chooses five players to go one-on-one in penalty kicks with the opposing team’s goalie. The team with the most goals after those 10 shots is declared the winner.
For his five, Dent went with experience, choosing Jace Smith, Rob Sessions, Cameron Wentz, Ernie Acevedo and Sam Bauer. Keeper Ashton Brewer had pitched a shutout in regulation and OT, and Dent kept him in net to face the Bearcats.
“Ashton played a very solid game; he was very active in the net,” Dent said. “His head was in the game. He was ready to go at all times through the whole game. He’s young, just a freshman, and it was quite a game for him.”
“It was scary, because Jace went first and really nailed the ball hard,” Dent said. “But their keeper blocked it. We couldn’t believe it, because it was a good, hard kick.”
But the Panthers rattled off four straight goals after Smith’s blocked shot, and Brewer proved up to the challenge in net, stopping three shots to preserve the 4-2 win.
“Rob [Sessions] nailed that final goal, put it right in, and we were going to state,” Dent said. “The guys were so excited. That’s when I could start breathing again.”
Bauer led the Panthers with seven shots on goal, followed by Sessions with six. The game was a physical one, with 11 penalties called on Powell.
Now headed to Jackson, the Panthers will open the state tournament Thursday against Rawlins, with gametime scheduled for 11 a.m. Dent said the Outlaws (7-8-1, winners of 3A Southeast Quadrant) are a team the Panthers don’t face often, but one he believes they match up well with.
“We need to be scoring goals,” Dent said. “We’ll work on scoring and passing this week, set some play ideas. I’m expecting Rawlins to have a very heavy defense, so to counter that we’ll have to be able to push it through.”
“We’ll keep reminding the guys about how good it felt to win that play-in game,” he added. “They were so excited to be going to state. That’s about the best motivator I can get a hold of.”