After a decisive Zero Week win against Riverton last week, the Powell High School football team went into Friday’s season-opener at Worland looking to build on that momentum.
Instead, after battling a mixture of ill-timed turnovers and missed opportunities, the Panthers returned home on the losing end of a 14-7 back-and-forth contest. Showing some early-season rust, neither team would score until the fourth quarter, and with turnovers on Powell’s final two drives, the Panthers ran out of clock.
“Turnovers were definitely a large part of the problem, for sure,” said PHS head coach Aaron Papich. “It really comes down to all the little things that you work on Monday through Thursday, and you have to execute on Friday. It’s my job to do a better job of helping to prepare the kids.”
Ethan Asher started the game at quarterback for the Panthers, though he and Kaelan Groves played an equal amount under center. Several key players were sidelined due to injury — most notably senior running back Jacob Harrison, who rushed for 148 yards and two scores against Riverton a week ago. Papich hopes to have Harrison back for Friday’s game against Lander.
“We have a few guys that are injured right now, and we’re hoping that those guys will be back as soon as possible,” he said. “We’ll find out where they’re at this week and go from there.”
Powell had excellent field position to start the game, as a shanked opening kickoff and a neutral zone infraction put the ball at their own 40-yard-line. But a Panther fumble on the fourth play from scrimmage gave the ball back to the Warriors, the first of four turnovers that would go Worland’s way on the night.
The rest of the first quarter and much of the second was a defensive battle, with both teams proving up to the task. A stalled drive into Panther territory resulted in a field goal attempt by the Warriors. But for the second time in as many weeks, Groves came up big on special teams, blocking the kick into the arms of teammate Dalton Woodward.
“He [Groves] is really coming through for us,” Papich said. “That’s really what we want, especially out of our seniors. He’s really leading by example, and I’m really pleased with how he’s been playing.”
Taking advantage of the blocked kick, the Panthers drove the ball to the Worland 10. But with time running out in the half, Ashton Brewer just missed a field goal attempt, sending both teams to the locker room knotted at 0-0.
The Warriors opened the second half with a nice kickoff return by Devon Mercado, setting up shop in Panther territory. Powell’s defense continued to step up, though the Panthers were unable to get anything going on the ensuing possession. The teams traded possessions again, and with the Panthers facing a third and long, Mercado picked off an Asher pass, returning it to the Powell 14. Again the Panther defense held, turning Worland over on downs.
With time winding down in the third quarter, the Warriors put together a 91-yard drive, culminating in a 10-yard touchdown run by Worland quarterback Rudy Sanford to begin the final frame. The extra point gave Worland a 7-0 lead.
With just under eight minutes remaining in the game, the Panthers answered with a 6-yard touchdown plunge by running back Kadden Abraham. Brewer’s extra point tied the game at 7.
After trading possessions, Worland began to move the ball again. A pass interference penalty gave the Warriors possession at the Powell 17, and on the very next play, Sanford hooked up with Mercado for the go-ahead touchdown.
With just under three minutes to play, Powell’s Kanyon Gann returned the kickoff to midfield, and it looked like the Panthers were in business. But a fumble on the first play from scrimmage gave the ball back to Worland, effectively ending Powell’s shot at a comeback. The Panthers did get the ball back with just under a minute to play, but Worland’s Sanford intercepted a Groves pass to end the game.
Disappointed with the result, though not with the effort, Papich said he liked the way his team continued to fight. He was also impressed with the play of players coming in off the bench.
“What I really liked was how we had a lot of kids step up, non-starters who played a lot in the game,” he said. “I really liked how those guys came through and played. I think there were a lot of good individual performances where there were some good ‘R’ factors coming through, the kids responded well.”
The Panthers’ defense held the Warriors to 240 total yards, led in points by Brody Karhu with 20. He was followed by Abraham and Groves with 19, Woodward with 17 and Adrian Geller with 15. The coach said Woodward is quickly emerging as a difference-maker on the defensive side for Powell.
“He [Woodward] is really coming through, on special teams, too, he’s making some nice plays, some big hits,” Papich said. “It was great seeing him play hard, along with Brody Karhu, [Kadden] Abraham and [Kaelan] Groves. Those guys are doing a really good job performance-wise. Now it’s just about bringing everyone together.”
Abraham ground out 44 yards on 13 carries and scored the team’s only touchdown. Karhu added 68 yards on 15 carries. Papich singled out his linemen for continuing to open holes.
“I like how we had guys like Zack Griffin, Josh Hine [and] Sawyer Mauthe. We had quite a few guys who had to step up and play,” he said. “Those are guys that weren’t in starting roles, but their numbers were called and they did a really good job coming in against a strong Worland team.”
Asher and Groves again split time under center, though Papich said he and his staff will decide on a permanent starter this week. Asher completed four passes on 10 attempts for 22 yards and an interception; Groves completed two of six for 14 yards and a pick. As the players battle for the starting spot, Papich had high praise for how both are handling the process.
“I couldn’t ask for a more professional and respectful way these two guys have gone about this,” he said. “They without a doubt have put the team first, and just their conduct has been outstanding.”
The Panthers welcome in Lander (0-1) Friday. The Tigers lost their season opener against fourth-ranked Green River 31-20.
“We’re expecting a really well-coached team Friday against Lander,” Papich said. “I know their coach came from the college ranks, and I know they will be ready to go. We just have to be sure that we prepare this week and put our kids in positions where they can be the most successful.”
As for what Powell needs to work on before squaring off against the Tigers, Papich said passing and stretching the field will be a priority in practice this week, as well as continuing to work on the little things that plagued the team at Worland.
“Our kids are learning, and we need to do a better job preparing Monday through Thursday,” Papich said. “That’s really where executing comes through on Friday. You don’t show up on Friday and hope to play well — you prepare with a game mindset Monday through Thursday, and come Friday is when you have fun. I think we’re definitely going the right way.”