PUEBLO — Howling winds, opportune moments and a couple of defensive touchdowns turn out to be a good formula for winning a state championship.
That was the case Saturday at the Neta and Eddie DeRose Thunderbowl. Sterling had trouble moving the ball at times, but big defensive plays and a little trickery powered the Tigers to a 27-19 win over Delta to claim the Class 2A football crown, the first football title in program history.
"We preach takeaways and big plays throughout the week," Sterling coach Rob Busmente said. "It's always a point of emphasis, but you can always watch a lot of football games every weekend and not see any takeaways."
Busmente saw one on the second play of the game, just not in the way he would've liked. On quarterback Brock Shalla's first pass of the game, he was picked off by Hunter Hughes.
The Panthers (11-2 overall) couldn't move the ball offensively but Ku Moo connected on a 37-yard field goal to give them a 3-0 lead early.
Those struggles for Sterling continued for much of the first quarter as they faced three 4th down situations and couldn't convert on any of them. They gave every appearance that they'd take the chances with their offense than try to take on the wind.
"A punt wasn't going anywhere in that wind," Busmente said. "You weren't going to flip the field."
Delta seemed less intimidated on its first play of the second quarter as Noah Bynum found Nathan Workman for a 20-yard touchdown pass to make it a 10-0 game.
With the wind now at their backs, however, the Tigers (12-1) found their groove, albeit in a tricky way. A flea-flicker resulted in a 58-yard touchdown pass from Shalla to Peyton Rose to get the Tigers on the board.
"We had that set in a long time ago," Shalla said. "It's one of those plays that we have in our back pocket and if we ever need the momentum on our side, just go to it."
The game completely turned on its on the next drive as Drew Book batted a Bynum pass and hauled it in for an interception. No Panther could run him down as he found the end zone and gave Sterling a 14-10 lead.
"Either way we would've done something there and go us back in the game," Book said. "We knew it was going to be a tough, grind out game like that."
That score held to the end of the third quarter and it was Delta's decision to punt the ball that played back into its favor. A bad snap on 4th down resulted in a safety and after returning the kick to midfield, the Panthers finally got some offensive flow in the second half.
Bynum found Hughes for a 31-yard gain, before a 13-yard Moo run set the Panthers up at 1st and goal at the two. Gauge Lockhart converted the touchdown run, once again putting the Panthers ahead 19-14.
But as Book said, the Tigers were resilient.
They mounted their best drive of the game to answer the Delta touchdown. It was capped with a touchdown run by Shalla to put the Tigers up 20-19.
Bynum went back to work on offense, but great defensive push led to a a fumble on an option play and it was Rose taking the ball all the way to the end zone to push the score to 26-19 and sealing the game for the Tigers.
"I knew our defense needed to get another stop," Shalla said. "But I had a pretty good feeling. I have a lot of trust in them."
That trust gave the 2019 Sterling football team something the school hadn't had until time officially ran out. A state football championship trophy will enter the hallways for the very first time.