DELTA – A first-half duel between two of the Western Slope League’s up-and-coming stars, was upstaged by a 93-yard kick return to start the second half by Delta, then turned into a fourth-quarter rout when the Panthers scored three times for a 39-10 victory.
Delta (5-2, 3-1 WSL), which eliminated Glenwood 13-9 in the 3A state playoffs last season, ending a seven-year losing streak to the Demons (3-1, 4-3), moved into a four-team, first-place tie atop the league when Palisade (3-1, 5-2) upset previously unbeaten Rifle (3-1, 6-1) 18-10 in the Bears’ Den Friday.
The touchdown return by Abraham Ontiveros snapped a 10-10 halftime tie and was the only score in a third period deeply influenced by a pair of key injuries. Jonny Ponce, the league’s leading rusher, demonstrated his prowess by carrying for all but the final 3-yards of Delta’s opening game, 67-yard drive, but left the game with what appeared to be a hamstring injury early in the second quarter. He returned and helped Delta to a 10-0 second quarter lead when Ontiveros booted a 27-yard field goal wih 4:53 to play in the half.
But sophomore quarterback Dante Sparaco, who had a narrow WSL passing lead over the Panthers’ 6-6 Cade Gafford coming into the game, burned up the Delta secondary, going 8-12 for 108 yards in the second period, including a beautiful touch pass that the 6-4 Chase Nieslanik caught between two defenders for a 25 yard score to tie the score with 1:11 remaining. Sparaco had earlier engineered an 11-play, 63-yard drive that led to a 34-yard field goal by Robert Hiles, who is 5-for-6 on 3-point tries this season.
Sophomore Damon Jensen replacd Ponce, who had 111 yards on 20 carries at the half, and if Glenwood thought they could relax on defense with the junior running back out, Jensen quickly reversed that thinking. Facing 2nd-and-15 at the Panther 25, Jensen broke loose on a sweep around left end and headed for the Demon end zone. Nieslanik took a perfect pursuit angle and brought him down with a tackle at the 25, but the players rolled into a sideline photographer on the Delta sideline and the Demon defender limped off the field.
A few plays later, Evrett Marr intercepted Gafford in the end zone, halting the Panther drive, and Glenwood put together a couple of first downs before stalling at the Delta 38. The Demons went into punt formation, but without a punter, as no one replaced Nieslanik, and had to use a time out to regroup. Facing 4th-and-4, Glenwood decided to go for it, but Sparaco was sacked for a 9 yard loss to the Delta 47.
The Panthers began what would turn out to be a 53 yard scoring drive, concluded with a Tristan Brown TD plunge from the one after Gafford completed just his third pass of the game for 21 yards to Eian Baier. It was Brown’s fourth carry since he had scored Delta’s first touchdown on the Panthers’ opening drive. With 9:43 left in the game, the Panthers led 24-10.
That was just the beginning of the end for the Demons, who hadn’t been able to run the ball all-game long, and reduced to one-dimension, the passing game was unable to rescue them. A pair of incompletions gave Delta the ball on downs at midfield and the Panthers drove 55 yards in 8 plays, capped by Jensen’s 20-yard TD for a 31-10 lead with 4:19 to go.
Sparaco threw his first interception since the Brush game on the next possession with Jensen (who else?) returning it to Glenwood’s 35. Three Jensen runs later, he scored and even a bad snap on the PAT was converted into a two-point scoring pass for the final points.
Sparaco finished 14-of-28, for 172 yards, but was held to just 19 yards rushing in 8 attempts and sacked twice for a loss of 28 yards. The Demon running game, so prominent in wins over Palisade and Eagle Valley, was non-existent, 28 yards in 18 attempts.
Jensen rushed for 158 second-half yards in 14 attempts, and Delta had 285 yards total on the ground. Gafford was 4-of-12 for 53 yards passing.
Delta travels to Eagle Valley (4-2, 1-2) while the Demons host Summit (0-4, 1-6) next weekend.