Down by seven with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, No. 1 Palmer Ridge was in prime position to march down the field with quarterback Derek Hester, who had dissected the Montrose secondary throughout the first half.
When it mattered most, though, it was Montrose’s defense that played hero as senior Hunter Duke intercepted Hester and ran to midfield with a little over four minutes remaining.
Montrose quarterback Gage Wareham and the Indians’ offense executed near perfectly in the game’s final minutes, securing a pair of first downs to whittle down the game clock and defeat 4A’s No. 1 ranked Bears 28-21.
“Everyone was super excited,” Montrose head coach Brett Mertens said of the team’s energy postgame. “It was electric. Our kids were fired up. It was fun.”
The Indians earned the postgame celebration after shutting out Palmer Ridge the entire second half, which is no small feat considering the Bears hadn’t been shut out for 24 straight minutes all season.
Hester attempted just three passes in the second half after throwing three touchdowns in the first two quarters. That was due to game script — Montrose running back Ethan Hartman scored on the team’s first drive out of halftime, which tied the game at 21-21 and returned momentum to the Indians’ sideline.
On the Bears’ next drive and at the Montrose 18, Indians lineman Ashden Oberg forced Palmer Ridge’s Connor Cook to fumble. The Indians recovered and put together a scoring drive coaches dream of — 82 yards while shaving more than 10 minutes off the game clock.
Montrose’s Blake Griffin, in his first game back from injury for the Indians, carried the ball to the Bears’ 6 for a 1st and goal. Palmer Ridge responded, knocking the Indians back to the 12 until a carry from Torrie Eckerman gave Montrose a fresh set of downs.
At the Bears’ 5, the Palmer Ridge front seven stuffed the Indians on their first three attempts until Griffin leapt past the goal line on 4th and 1 for his second score of the night and the 28-21 lead.
“I thought coach (Jake) Appling called a great game,” Mertens said. “Credit to the kids for executing it. We just kept with the gameplan and said we’re gonna keep running it.
“...those types of drives, those are huge for you because they do two things — one, you score, but they keep the other team’s offense off the field and frustrates them. Those are the types of drives that can win you a game like that.”
The immaculate drive allowed Palmer Ridge to have just one more possession. Before then, the Bears had the ball just once in the third quarter. That development was a complete flip of the switch with Hester looking like he was well on his way to a stat-stuffing night.
In the second quarter, the Bears continued to allow Hester to unleash throws across the field, one of which found an open Ayden Snow for a score to give Palmer Ridge a 21-14 halftime lead. Earlier, Anthony Costanzo caught Hester’s pass for a touchdown, tying the game at 14-14.
Palmer Ridge’s dominant second quarter was shades of 2020, when Montrose let a 14-7 halftime lead slip against these same Bears in an eventual 42-20 loss.
Friday night was different. With Montrose down by just seven at halftime after fumbling four times, losing one, Mertens told the team a score on the first drive could shape which way momentum would swing.
“We told the kids if you put a touchdown in and tie this game up, you’re gonna take the momentum back, and we felt like that was the key,” Mertens said. “We had the momentum the entire fourth quarter. The entire second half, really.
“I felt that was crucial to getting a win in the second half, getting momentum on our side.”
Duke picked off Hester seconds into the first quarter and Montrose made the turnover count as Griffin scored a 2-yard touchdown moments later for the game’s first score.
Hester responded with a touchdown drive on the Bears’ next possession, finding tight end Ethan Twesme for a 25-yard touchdown pass to tie the game 7-7.
Under the five minute mark in the first quarter, Hartman, at the Palmer Ridge 5, broke a pair of tackles and danced into the end zone to give Montrose a 14-7 lead. The Indians had a chance to add another score but fumbled at the Bears’ 1 on their next possession.
Wareham, who on Friday looked poised in the pocket and avoided costly mistakes, repeatedly fought for rushing yards while guiding Montrose’s offense against one of 4A’s top defenses.
“Gage played phenomenal,” Mertens said. “For a sophomore, in that big of a game, he played phenomenal. Super proud of him.”
The victory moves No. 4 Montrose to 6-0 — and with the win against No. 1 Palmer Ridge, gives Montrose a chance to climb the 4A rankings when they’re released next Monday — and 1-0 in the 4A Southern 1 League.
League play continues next week as Montrose welcomes Heritage (1-5) next Friday for a 6 p.m. kickoff before two straight away games against league opponents Vista Ridge (4-1) and Air Academy (3-3).
Josue Perez is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press