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Homecoming heartbreak for Panthers as Grafton takes win

By Sue Sitter - | Sep 26, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT Panther Tim Mueller breaks free from the grip of a Grafton defensive player to carry the ball downfield.

An “amped-up” Panther football team sprang onto their turf at Northern Lights Field for their homecoming game Sept. 18, only to see hopes for a win dashed by the aptly named Grafton Spoilers.

“We got a little amped up and excited about being on the field and we just didn’t stay very mentally sharp,” Panther coach Travis Risovi said of the team after the 8-30 loss.

The first Panther possession held promise when quarterback Brody Schneibel completed a handoff to wingback Tim Mueller for a 10-yard gain and a first down. Running back J.D. Matehs moved the ball inches from another first down, but a penalty for a false start set the Panthers back five yards, throwing the team’s momentum off and forcing a punt.

The Panther defense stopped the Spoilers cold on their first possession. As defensive squads on both teams flexed their muscle, the score remained 0-0 for the first quarter, despite a promising interception by free safety Eric Foster on a Landon Woinarowicz pass.

Mueller moved the ball to the 45 yard line with a first down and Matehs moved the ball farther downfield before strong safety Stevan Garza picked off a Schneibel pass with just seconds to go on the quarter.

The Panther defense stayed on the Spoilers, sacking Woinarowicz before he completed a long pass to wide receiver Alex Ibanez, setting up a touchdown by Esgar Rios and a two-point conversion by Damon Reyes.

After the Panthers struggled to gain territory on the gridiron, they powered up their defense to sack Woinarowicz yet again before a Grafton miscalculation resulted in a turnover on downs.

Two possessions later, with seconds to go in the first half, Schneibel connected a pass to Foster for a touchdown and two-point conversion, tying the game 8-8 as the clock ticked down to zero.

The Spoilers stormed onto the field for the third quarter and moved the ball downfield with unstoppable energy. A long pass to receiver William Jiskra gave the Spoilers another touchdown, then a two-point conversion to Reyes put the Spoilers in the lead 16-8.

The Panthers’ energy flagged in the third quarter. Two 15-yard penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct set Rugby back.

Schneibel saw a pass picked off by cornerback Justin Garza, who took advantage of the situation one play later to score another Spoiler touchdown. Another two-point conversion moved the Spoilers ahead 24-8.

A Mueller punt return gave the Panthers good field position and carries by Matehs and running back Riley Tuenge, but Grafton’s defense kept the Panthers far from the goal line. Rugby scrambled to gain yards and connect passes, even trying an illegal lateral throw at one point.

Grafton’s Augustin Obregon picked off another Schneibel pass, only to have the favor returned by Foster on a Woinarowicz pass two plays later.

With a 24-8 lead as the fourth quarter began, the Spoilers kept the pressure on the Panthers, forcing a Rugby turnover on downs, which set up a Reyes touchdown for a 30-8 lead.

The Panther defense thwarted a two-point conversion attempt.

As the minutes in the game ticked away, Rugby made progress with a Matehs first down and a leaping catch by Mueller, but the Panthers again turned the ball over on downs.

The Spoilers used up time in their possession, but the Panther defense kept them far from the goal line.

With seconds to go, the Panthers took over on their own 15-yard line, ending the game with an 8-30 defeat and a third loss for the season.

“We didn’t stay very disciplined tonight,” Risovi said of the Panthers. “We went back to how we were at the beginning of the year. We had a bunch of penalties in our first couple of games and we had been working really hard to clean them up.”

Risovi said of the Spoilers, who count 10 seniors on their roster, “They’re definitely a more veteran team than ours. They’re a bunch of kids who played last year when we played them. They’re very physical; they’re big kids. They do a lot of nice things.”

The Panthers, with five seniors, “had a lot of plays out there for us, and we missed them.”

However, Risovi noted the Schneibel-to-Foster touchdown “was one when we made a play. We executed what we were trying to do and luckily, we got in the end zone right before the half and turned the momentum a little bit, but unfortunately, we couldn’t keep going in that direction.”

“It was just one of those intense games with 22 high school boys playing really hard and giving it their all. That’s what it was,” Risovi added.

“Park River is next, he said ahead of the Sept. 25 away game. “We just need to get back to work and get back to doing what we were doing at the beginning of the year, and that’s winning the line of scrimmage and playing some pretty good football. The boys have it in them. We’re close, but we have some work to do.”

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