The Coconino Panthers started off Friday’s 4A football play-in game about as flawlessly as a team can.
The passing game, which is often an afterthought for the run-heavy Panthers, was the spark while the defense shut down a dangerous Estrella Foothills offense when it mattered.
Combine those two things and the Panthers got something that’s been missing since the turn of the millennium: a postseason win.
"It's still kinda soaking in a little bit," Panthers head coach Mike Lapsley said. "You know we set our goal so high -- it was awesome to get this win, but I think we are looking forward to next Friday. ... I'm sure it will sink in a little later as we start to celebrate this a little more, but I am really looking forward to seeing who we will play next Friday."
The third-seeded Panthers broke a 20-year drought of postseason wins with a 35-22 victory over the No. 15-seeded Estrella Foothills Wolves at Cromer Stadium.
As if the firsts or snapping of droughts couldn't get better for Coconino: Friday marked the first time the Panthers have ever won a postseason game at Cromer Stadium, having played just two games at their home venue.
Being a year removed from a heartbreaking 10-9 first-round playoff loss makes the play-in win even more sweet for the emerging Coconino program.
Panthers quarterback Ryan Seery orchestrated possibly the cleanest and most prolific passing game the Panthers have had all year — and even in recent memory.
Seery and the offense didn’t do anything out of the ordinary or away from the usual scheme, just more of it. The Panthers threw it more times Friday than they had in any other game all season.
And the results were there against Estrella.
The first score of the game came off a Seery dime to Andy Ruiz off a play-action pass to cap off the Panthers' opening drive. Near the end of the second quarter, Seery hit Malcolm Morris for a 46-yard gain, but the ball was stripped out of Morris' hands by an Estrella defender, only for Ruiz to scoop it up and score.
That score put the Panthers up 21-0 on Estrella entering halftime.
It didn't take much longer for Seery to find the end zone again, hitting Matias Ortiz for a 15-yard score on the opening drive of the third, and later in the quarter Seery hit Morris for a 39-yard TD and a 35-0 lead.
Seery threw for a career-high 203 yards on 8-of-11 passing and connected for two touchdowns and another that would have been a TD on the play where Ruiz scooped up the fumble. Seery threw just one interception on the first drive of the third quarter.
For Seery, getting his confidence back after three straight games of low production is exactly what he needed -- all while crediting his offensive line as always.
"It all starts with the O-line, man," Seery said. "That's where it's at. Those guys, they worked so hard this week, last week and man, every week. ... It's just a confidence thing. I got that back and it feels great, really. Plus I got the whole team behind me, they all have my back."
Play-action passes, roll outs and dimes down the middle -- exactly how the Panthers have executed their passing offense all season.
Heading into the week the plan had been to get the passing game going. As prolific as the run game has been under Lapsley and the stable of running backs, the passing game becoming dynamic would give Coconino a new level to its offense.
"It was the first message we sent on Monday morning, we have to be much better at the passing game down the stretch," Lapsley said. "We are going to have to loosen teams up. We love to run the ball, you all know that. We knew we could do it and we worked really hard this week on executing it and they showed it. ... (Seery) had a heck of a game."
It took Estrella until the fourth quarter to get any points on the board.
For the first 36 minutes of the game, the Coconino defense kept the end zone on lockdown. The defense picked off Estrella quarterback Tyler Perry three times -- including three touchdown-saving interceptions in the end zone.
The Wolves offense was marching in the second quarter with the score at 14-0. The Wolves put together a nearly five-minute drive, using long scrambles and chunk gains by Perry to keep the drive alive.
Perry had Estrella at the Coconino 8-yard line with a chance to make it a one-score game. He had a target open in the end zone, until Jacob Begay dove in front of the pass for a demoralizing interception.
"We threw a bunch of different looks at them, coming at every angle," Panthers defensive coordinator Dalton Schwetz said. "That quarterback -- and he knows it -- is special. He's a player, he ran all over and made our lives hard all night. But our game plan was to throw a bunch of different looks. They were going to make plays -- they are too good not to -- so make them earn it."
Coconino's offense made good on the chance, scoring on the ensuing drive by marching down the field from its own 1.
Three different Panthers rushed for over 77 yards in the win.
Tyson Fousel led the way with nine carries for 82 yards on 9.1 yards per rush, while Zach Bennett was shaken up in the fourth quarter but appeared OK and finished his night with 13 carries for 77 yards and an uncharacteristic zero-TD night. Malcolm Morris picked up the scoring slack with two rushing touchdowns -- he also had 73 yards receiving and a touchdown.
The Panthers will figure out their placement in the playoffs Saturday following the bracket show. Coconino is likely a top seed in the 4A Conference playoffs, and a long shot for the Open Division playoffs.
Wherever Coconino falls, next game is Friday at the higher seed's home field.
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