Moffat County football claims conference crown with Senior Night victory over Delta
If pressed to use only one adjective for their players Friday night, Moffat County High School varsity football coaches know what it would be.
How else could you describe a squad that came back from every potential setback, created opportunities out of nothing, and wound up with an honor they haven’t seen in several seasons?
In their first and hopefully only year in the temporary 2A West League, MCHS Bulldogs claimed the conference title with a 26-20 upset win of the No. 2-ranked Delta Panthers.
At 2-1 overall heading into it, Moffat County was no slouch in the recent rankings from CHSAA, rounding out the Top 10 based on votes from coaches, but they knew perfectly well their latest game would be their greatest challenge yet against an as-yet-undefeated opponent.
Recent wins helped MoCo climb the RPI chart into a comfortable fourth place, though Delta was still in second by that metric. However, the Panthers’ 4-0 record also came with some unavoidable roster changes with an injury the previous week to starting quarterback Nolan Bynum.
“They were playing with a heavy heart losing their starter,” said MCHS head coach Lance Scranton. “But they still came out and played.”
The Dogs had a dire situation right away, as a return of the opening kickoff went awry. The pigskin bounced off Evan Atkin, who, in the ensuing fracas for the ball, got the wind knocked out of him by the Panthers.
Delta’s recovery of the ball put them instantly in the red zone at the Moffat County 20-yard line, yet the Bulldog defense sprang into action. While the Panthers got as far as the 5, a continued shutdown pushed them to 4th and 10. A setup for the field goal attempt wound up costing Delta precious yardage with a false start, moving back to the 15.
The kick sailed left as Bulldogs let out a sigh of relief and offense got back in gear.
Though no one blamed him for the earlier flub, Atkin was ready to redeem himself and did so in spades with the first hike, taking the handoff from quarterback Ryan Peck and rushing what would be his longest gain of a staggering statistical night, 47 yards.
Atkin and fellow running back Caleb Frink kept grinding, and soon Frink tumbled into the end zone on a two-yard draw play as the Dogs moved to 6-0, Panthers claiming a block of the extra point.
Incensed at being behind on the scoreboard, Delta pounded forward on the subsequent kick return and were in scoring position in no time thanks to a Bulldog pass interference that followed.
Delta QB Nathan Scharnhorst’s next throw was a simple floater to Hunter Goff that amounted to 12 yards and a touchdown as a PAT gave the Panthers the lead at 7-6.
The Bulldog backfield was back at it as Atkin, Peck and Frink kept pushing on the next drive. A 25-yard counter by Frink put him over the goal line, complete with the PAT by Chris Cox to make it 13-7 late in the first quarter.
Delta started the second period by finding a gap in the MoCo D that amounted to a touchdown scramble of more than 50 yards, but Bulldogs were right back on point as Joe Campagna blocked his second kick in as many weeks to keep the score even.
What was starting to look like a shootout situation slowed down from there as both teams forced punts from each other and got little yardage. Finally, the pace picked up as Frink nabbed an interception at midfield and brought it 28 yards late in the half.
Peck lined up a long pass to Myles Simpson that was picked off by Delta’s Mason Hollowwa, only for the Panthers to get a call against them for roughing the passer that gave the ball back to the blue and white.
Peck had more limited throwing numbers than any game so far this season — two for eight with 23 yards — but a 14-yard reception by Atkin gave them prime position with little time to spare.
A minimal passing night wasn’t exactly the game plan for the Bulldogs, coach Scranton said, though running as much as they did worked in multiple ways.
“We knew we wanted to burn clock because Delta’s such an explosive team,” he said.
With two seconds left on the clock, Atkin dove in the end zone from two yards out to regain the lead, though Frink’s rush on the two-point conversion didn’t boost the score further, leaving it at 19-13 at halftime.
If the first half started shaky for the home team, the second began disastrously for their visitors, who may have had a few too many Butterfingers left over from Halloween.
Delta’s drive stopped as soon as it started as Scharnhorst fumbled a snap and Bulldog lineman Bryan Gonzalez capitalized on the chance with the recovery.
“I did not see that coming at all,” Gonzalez said. “I was there to protect the edge and the ball went loose. I could have scooped it, but I was more worried about securing it.”
The sudden red zone placement for the Bulldog offense ended with Atkin muscling his way through the Panther line for a 1-yard TD with less than a minute off the clock. Another good kick by Cox sent it to 26-13.
Cox was busy with plentiful punts as well, with a lot of booting on both ends throughout the third period as offenses again were stalled.
Delta’s defense recovered a Bulldog fumble in the Moffat County territory, a play that looked like it may have been a turning of the tide for the Panthers.
No such luck.
Scharnhorst was promptly picked off for the second time as defensive back Carson Miller juggled the ball at the goal line and maintained possession before plopping into his own end zone for the touchback.
Small gains by either team continued as time ticked down to move into the fourth quarter, but it was a Bulldog facemask call combined with a sudden burst of rushing that got the Panthers all the way to the MCHS 30.
A bad snap plus a Bulldog sack by Atkin had Delta at an unfavorable 3rd and 30 only for a well-executed option play to let the Panthers claw their way back with another 24 yards to make it 4th and 6.
While there was lots of noise coming from the Bulldog sideline and MCHS student section, a 15-yard touchdown catch by Delta’s Colbi Braslin got them concerned.
And with that concern, they only got louder with another six minutes still to go.
A gassed MoCo offense wasn’t getting anywhere, and a problematic snap to Cox on the punt didn’t let him get much of a kick, yet the Dogs kept Panthers at bay at midfield as pass attempts fell short.
Cox punted one final time as the Dogs were forced into a 4th and 23 from their own 35, and a holding call helped along the Panthers on the return with just enough time to make it happen with 55 seconds remaining.
Delta kept going full steam but had their timeouts depleted, forcing Scharnhorst to spike the ball with two seconds left.
With both squads knowing this would be the final play of the game, it was the Bulldogs who saw what was most likely coming.
“You knew the ball was going in the air, and we knew we had to get the pressure on the quarterback,” said coach Kip Hafey.
Defensive end Logan Hafey was more than ready, shifting slightly to his left just before Scharnhorst took the snap, beating out the block and throwing the Panther QB to the turf for the sack.
Logan Hafey noted he was downright exhausted in the final moments but couldn’t let himself stop.
“I knew I had to give anything I had left, so I widened out on the line and went for it,” he said.
What followed was MoCo players and coaches storming the field while in the stands the student section set off rainbow confetti to celebrate a long-awaited win, the first Moffat County defeat of Delta since 2011 when the two were both in the 3A Western Slope League.
“This was a great job, great effort by every single person on this team,” Kip Hafey said. “If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be ‘relentless.’”
Atkin was the workhorse for the night, with 22 total carries for 142 yards, while Frink’s 18 rush attempts put him at 67, and Peck scampered three times for 16 altogether as well as one pass apiece to his top running backs.
With three sacks as well as six tackles for loss, Bulldog defensive linemen and linebackers were dominating as Atkin, Campagna, Hafey, Taran Teeter, Chris Sanderson, Daniel Cruz, Corey Scranton wrought havoc.
Logan Hafey led in the count with 12 tackles, with Campagna notching nine and Teeter seven.
“It may not show up on the stat sheet, but I think that was the best game I’ve ever played,” Campagna said. “I feel like I left it all out there.”
Coach Scranton credited a perennial playoff contender like Delta — who finished as 2019’s 2A WSL runner-up behind Rifle only to make it to the state finals — with being as tough as opponents as ever.
“We knew the caliber of team we were facing and we knew we’d have to give them everything we had,” he said. “We brought everything, and it worked out for us.”
As the first team to knock off Delta this fall, 3-1 MCHS takes the league title, their first since 2015, though the remainder of the season is uncertain as a road game with fellow 2A West team Middle Park originally scheduled for Nov. 14 may not happen.
“In the age of COVID, I don’t prognosticate anything,” coach Scranton said, adding he would be OK with a bye week.
As the league champs, MoCo will automatically qualify for playoffs, which is ostensibly an eight-team bracket.
Scranton noted there is a good likelihood of facing Delta again down the road since their standing is still strong.
Though the postseason is questionable, the latest victory was a thrilling one for the eldest members of the team who were celebrated beforehand as part of Senior Night.
One of the largest collection of upperclassmen for Bulldog football in recent years included Gonzalez, Campagna, Frink, Cox, Sanderson, Cruz, Blake Juergens, Corey Scranton, Donnie Quick, Chris Maneotis, and Sterling Mouriquand, all of whom were honored along with family members in a pre-game ceremony.
For Gonzalez, it’s the first year on the high school gridiron and while it may be shorter it’s certainly a memorable one.
“I haven’t played since eighth-grade, but holy cow, I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said. “My buddies encouraged me to play since this is the last year we can all hang out. And now we’re league champs.”
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For the first time in 18 months, the Moffat County High School auditorium will fill with music and singing from students, as the school performs MCHS’s musical, “Beauty and the Beast.”