After a year to reload, the Rocky Mountain Grizzlies are back in the playoffs, earning a spot with a 34-26 win over the Saratoga Panthers Friday evening in Saratoga.
“This was a huge, huge win,” said coach David Hayes, “driving seven hours and winning and getting that (three-game) losing streak off our backs.”
The win put the Grizz solidly in fourth place in the 1A West at 4-4, 5-3 overall, and eliminated Saratoga, Riverside, Wind River and Wyoming Indian.
The Grizz will now take another long trip, this time east to meet 1A East top seed Lusk at 6 p.m. Friday in the first round of the playoffs.
Rocky Mountain was ready to play Friday, taking the opening kickoff and driving 80 yards to score. The Grizz kept the ball on the ground, Hayes said, with seniors Jake Jones and Ethan Landers running hard. Landers capped the drive with a 14-yard run off right tackle, Hayes said. The pass for two points failed, but Rocky led 6-0.
After stopping the Panthers on downs on the home team’s first series, the Grizz struck quickly, Hayes said, when quarterback Kirby Winland hit Landers for a 71-yard touchdown pass. Jones ran in the two-point conversion, and Rocky led 14-0, still in the first quarter.
Following an exchange of fumbles, the Panthers scored early in the second quarter to get on the scoreboard at 14-6, but the Grizz responded with a scoring drive of their own capped by and eight-yard Landers run. The point-after kick was blocked, but Rocky led 20-6.
A bobbled punt snap led to a short field later in the first half, and Saratoga capitalized with a touchdown to cut the Rocky lead to 20-12 at halftime.
Given new life, the home team scored on the opening kickoff of the second half and punched in the two-point conversion to tie the score 20-20, then took at 26-20 lead later in the third period.
The Grizz answered in the fourth quarter when Winland scored on a quarterback sneak, then hit Wilson Flowers for the two-point conversion, taking a 28-26 lead. Saratoga attempted to re-take the lead, but a short field goal barely missed, Hayes said.
Rocky then launched a game-clinching, 80-yard drive that culminated with a counter sweep by Cannon Simmons, who took the ball in from six yards out. The PAT failed, leaving the margin at eight points, 34-26, but the Grizz thwarted a final drive by Saratoga to pick up the win.
Rocky rushed for 326 yards on 44 carries and passed for 121, Hayes said, as Winland completed four of nine passes.
Landers rushed 24 times for 189 yards and caught one pass for 71. Jones had 11 carries for 52 yards and one reception for three, and Joey Jewell carried two times for 59 yards and caught two passes for 47 yards. Winland picked up 15 yards rushing on five attempts, Simmons 11 yards on two carries.
Defensively, middle linebacker Jones led the way with 26 defensive points on seven assisted tackles, seven solo tackles and a fumble recovery. Outside linebacker Caleb Horrocks had 24 points on five solo tackles and 14 assisted stops. Flowers had 17 defensive points, Jewell 12.
“Coach C’s (Tobee Christiansen) play calling was creative the whole night, and the kids executed,” Hayes said. “When we executed, they couldn’t stop us. The line gave Ethan and Jake lanes to run. Kirby was really accurate and played really well. A couple of his incompletions were drops.
“Our defense was scrappy. With our size, it’s tough. We were kind of opportunistic and took advantage of situations.”
And now the Grizz head into the playoffs, taking on the Lusk Tigers Friday at 6 p.m. in Lusk. Lusk is 8-0 overall, 5-0 in the 1A East.
The Tigers have tended to blow out weaker opponents – Hill City, S.D. 55-0, Pine Bluffs 43-0, Casper Natrona JVs 43-21 and Normative Services 55-0 – but other games, especially those against playoff-bound teams, have been closer – Burns 14-6, Southeast 7-6, Lingle 36-24 and Upton-Sundance 22-12.
Last season Lusk buried Saratoga 38-10 in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Cokeville 28-7 in the semifinals.
“They’re a good, solid team – very aggressive on defense,” Hayes said. “They put a lot of players in the box and attack you. They’re athletic. Offensively, they run an I backfield and run right at you, including sweeps and counters. They’re not overpowering. They are aggressive. It will be tough.
“Our strategy is that we’re going to have to keep them off-balance on offense, be opportunistic and limit miscues. We’ve got to be assignment sound on defense and be in a position to win the game.”
Other first-round games include Lingle-Ft. Laramie at Cokeville, Shoshoni at Southeast and Upton-Sundance at Burlington.
By David Peck