Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer
Daily Camera file photo
Boulder’s long-awaited return to the state football playoffs will indeed come with an extended stay.
Drake Arthur caught a long touchdown off a trick play, added a touchdown-saving tackle on fourth-and-goal, and the Panthers held firm on two defensive stands in the final minutes to beat Fort Collins, 21-14, in the opening round of the Class 5A playoffs Friday night at Recht Field.
Holding tight to a seven-point lead with 3 minutes, 35 seconds remaining, the fourth-ranked host forced the fifth-seeded Lambkins into their fifth turnover of the game. Fort Collins quarterback Andrew Seest was stripped at the line as Boulder’s Ethan Kunkel recovered.
The Panthers (5-0) gave it back less than a minute later with a fumble of their own, and yet again the defense came up stingy, stopping the Lambkins (4-2) inside the red zone as time expired.
“Defensive leadership, senior leadership, that’s what makes them great,” Boulder coach Ryan Bishop said. “They all play together, they’re disciplined, and they do what they’re coached to do. Our defense is real simple: We just fly around and have fun.”
Stopping a short pass inside the 20 on the game’s final play, players ripped off their helmets and sprinted toward their home bleachers in celebration. Bishop was embraced on the field by his wife and kids.
The emotional victory came in the football program’s first appearance in the postseason since 2015. It was the Panthers’ first playoff win in around 20 years, according to Bishop.
They will face No. 8 Denver East next week with a chance to reach the championship game. Boulder’s last of three football titles came in 1992.
“We’re going to keep our heads down, we’re going to keep working,” Arthur said. “We got to go 1-0 and keep working our tails off because that’s what’s doing it. The hard work is paying off.”
Boulder’s vaunted spring D stymied Fort Collins throughout the night, expanding on a dominant season in which the unit has allowed just 35 points in five games.
Among highlights: Arthur planted Seest just shy of the end zone on a fourth-and-goal run in the second quarter; Tristan Langenegger had two of the team’s three interceptions; and Luke Zana had the other, while also recovering a fumble.
Trailing 21-7 at half, Fort Collins drove past midfield before Seest threw up a 50-50 ball that was wrestled away by Zana. Langenegger picked him off again on the next drive.
The Lambkins eventually got within one score — thanks to a short passing TD on the first play of the fourth quarter — but couldn’t find the tying TD over their final three possessions.
“Well, this defense is special,” Arthur said. “We’ve had the same group of linebackers since our freshmen year, we got a couple dudes playing college ball. I mean, we’re just honestly a family. If someone gets blocked down, we got his back. We read our keys, listen to our coaches and do our jobs. That’s what we do.”
The Panthers built an early 14-point lead on two quick scores in the waning minutes of the opening quarter.
On fourth-and-goal inside the 1, Alvin Rodriguez scurried around the left side of the line and squeezed between two defenders to get in. Then two minutes after that, Rodriguez pitched the ball back to Parker Patchett, who hit a wide-open Arthur in stride for the 56-yard score.
The Lambkins made it 14-7 on Seest’s first passing TD — but in quick response, Boulder’s Luke Werner took the ensuing kickoff into the end zone, zig-zagging 96 yards.
“Adversity is what football is all about,” Bishop said. “Every time we overcome adversity, we’re growing as young men and young women.”
It’s a lesson that has gone far beyond the gridiron for Bishop’s team.
By the hand of the global pandemic, the Panthers opted out of the traditional fall season to play in the spring. But the virus’ impact remained as each of their four games in the regular season were either canceled or moved because of COVID-19 concerns. In fact, they’d planned on facing Fort Collins two weeks ago but that was called off days prior due to a quarantine by the Lambkins.
Boulder had just a few practices to start the season before it was embedded inside a state-mandated quarantine of its own. Its season opener then came just seven days after a mass shooting left 10 dead at a nearby Kings Soopers on March 22.
Prior to kickoff Friday, they honored alum Logan Smith with a team jersey and an ovation for his heroic actions around the shooting. Smith was working at the store’s Starbucks kiosk during it, and it was reported that he helped protect a 69-year-old co-worker by helping her find a safe place to hide.
Boulder will host the Angels of East on Saturday night at 6 p.m.