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by David Tesitor

WALSENBURG- The Colorado High School Activities Association committee selected the John Mall Panthers and Rocky Ford Meloneers as at-large schools to participate in this year’s state tournament.  The Panthers’ second-place tie and outstanding showing last Saturday against Rye, the number-two team in the state, helped give them the nod.  As a result, the John Mall Panthers will travel north this Saturday to face the Byers Bulldogs in the first round of the state 1A football playoffs.  The game will be played in the town of Strasburg, five miles west of Byers, because the Byers field is currently unplayable. 

    This is the Panthers’ first trip to the sweet sixteen since 2000.  Back then, the Cats won the league championship but lost to the Hayden Tigers 13-8 in a closely fought battle.  This year, the Panthers’ explosive offense and fast defense earned them a second-place league finish and the right to postseason action.

    Byers last visit to the playoffs was in 2007 when they lost to Sargent 18-0.  The Tigers have been in the playoffs four times this decade but have lost every time in the first round.  The Tigers (8-1) won their 1A Metro League off the strong arm of senior quarterback Jordon Dodge.  Dodge has a quarterback rating of 135 and is second-best passer in the state with 2250 yards.  The Tigers average 281.1 yards per game in the air and 109 on the ground.  According to Coach Berger, "Byers is a passing team and they have a different style than we′ve seen the past few weeks.  We′re excited about that."

    On defense, Charlie Whitehead will match up favorably against Tiger receivers Evan Steitz who averages 18 yards per reception and nine touchdowns and Bryan Weikel, 28.58 yards per reception and four TD′s.  Whitehead’s speed should create problems for Dodge all afternoon.

    The Panthers’ speed should also be their biggest asset.  Jacob Wiggins is an explosive player. If he is healthy, Wiggins should be a thorn in the side of the Tiger defense. (Wiggins played hurt for most of the Thunderbolt game-see related story)  The Tiger line will be one of the smallest lines the Panthers have faced all season.  This could help their running game, which has been strong up the middle all season long playing against larger lines.  The power running of Andre Ortiz, Dylan Tenorio and Steven Ruiz will make the Panthers volatile from anywhere on the field.

    The Panthers have the ability to defeat the Tigers if they play up to their potential because they have depth from all areas of the field.  The game should also be a high scoring affair with the Panthers coming out on top.  My pick, John Mall 34-Byers 28.

    There may be a booster bus going, check our website or Facebook site for details.