It’s taken almost 50 years for Delta High School’s football team to return to a state title game, but this time around, the team wasn’t as lucky.
Saturday’s 2A state football championship marked the return for the Panthers and represented just the third time Delta has played in a football title game. In 1960, Delta was the state champion following a 12-7 win over Cañon City. The Panthers were back for another title opportunity in 1961 but lost a 40-14 decision to Lamar and was the runner-up.
Delta had more than just No. 2-ranked Sterling to contend with, however. A fierce wind held both teams captive for 32 minutes with the game’s outcome determined by defense and some luck in a 27-19 win for Sterling High School’s Tigers.
Success in the first half was dictated by the wind’s direction, which was out of the northwest. The Panthers opened the game by kicking to Sterling at the south end of Neta and Eddie DeRose Thunderbowl on the campus of CSU-Pueblo. Delta senior Hunter Hughes was in the right place at the right time when Sterling quarterback Brock Shalla’s first pass of the game was delivered to Hughes, giving the Panthers their first possession at the Tiger’s 19-yard line. Sterling’s defense rose to the occasion and put up a wall to force a 37-yard field goal that split the uprights for a 3-0 Delta lead.
Sterling’s next three possessions were turnovers on downs, the Panthers’ defense meeting the challenge to stop potential drives. Delta’s offense fought the wind, as well as Tigers, on each occasion and experienced stalled drives on Sterling’s 26 and 23-yard lines, forcing field goal attempts, one missed and the other ending with a fumbled snap.
The Panthers scored the game’s first touchdown on the first play of the second quarter when Delta quarterback Nolan Bynum found senior Nate Workman all alone for a 20-yard scoring strike. Moo’s extra point kick gave Delta a 10-0 lead with 11:55 before halftime.
With nothing working on offense, Sterling resorted to a bit of trickery immediately on the next possession with a flea-flicker pass from Shalla to junior Peyton Rose for a 58-yard pass and six points. With the successful PAT, Sterling trimmed Delta’s lead to 10-7.
The Tigers stunned Delta with another quick touchdown on a pass deflected by senior Drew Book, who brought the ball in for an interception and then ran 66 yards, giving 14-10 Sterling lead.
The Panthers had two more turnovers before halftime, an interception and a blocked punt.
Delta’s defense was stellar as well in the waning moments of the second quarter with an outstanding goal line stand following Glassburn’s interception. With the Tigers gaining a first down at Delta’s 7-yard line, the Panthers dug in to stop Sterling’s offense at the 2-yard line to take possession. Senior Skyler Kraai stopped Sterling’s final drive of the first half with an interception at Delta’s 6-yard line to keep the score at 14-10 in favor of Sterling at the break.
Without a break from gusting winds, both teams waged defensive war, keeping the score at 14-10 after the third quarter.
A Workman punt pinned the Tigers down at their own 8-yard line. A bad snap on fourth down sailed over the head of Sterling’s punter and out of the endzone for two points with 11:09 left in the game.
Delta got the ball back on the kickoff following the safety and marched 52 yards against the wind to regain the lead on senior Gauge Lockhart’s 2-yard plunge, giving Delta had a 19-14 lead.
Sterling took the ensuing kickoff out to its own 43-yard line to begin its next possession. With 6:08 remaining in the game, Shalla capped a 57-yard drive with a 5-yard run to give the lead back to the Tigers, 20-19.
Delta was in the driver’s seat and moving the ball well with the ball resting on the Tigers’ 16-yard line when a critical play in the game changed everything. A deflected pitch on an option play was scooped up by Rose and returned for an 82-yard touchdown run. Sterling took a 27-19 lead with just 3:19 left to play.
“We were thinking field goal,” explained Delta coach Ben Johnson. “We wanted to get the ball to the 15, but that was still going to be hard with kicking right into the wind.”
Delta was unable to move the ball after that with Sterling’s defense forcing a turnover on downs and then kneeling the final two plays of the game for the win.
Johnson acknowledged the fact game plans were changed somewhat to offset the windy conditions.
“It was super windy, and we changed the game plan a little to some shorter passes, but the wind still pushed the ball everywhere,” he said.
Both of Delta’s touchdowns came against the wind, with passing a big part of the success the Panthers had moving the ball for scores.
“Both TDs were scored against the wind. The two turnovers for TDs were costly in the outcome,” Johnson said. “I thought the defense played a great game except when we took the lead (19-14) and they drove 55 yards and got the lead back.”
There’s no second guessing the game’s outcome as the state’s top two Class 2A teams treated fans on both sides of the field to an exciting conclusion.
“I’m very proud of these young men. It was a very fun group to coach. I can’t thank them enough. Their efforts made the school and community very proud,” Johnson said.
Wayne Crick is the sports editor for the Delta County Independent.