In looking at the numbers for Sterling and Delta ahead of the 2A state championship game, there’s not much difference between the clubs. As a result, fans on hand should be treated to a very tightly contested game Saturday afternoon at CSU-Pueblo. Kickoff is slated at 1:00pm.
There is one common opponent between the two clubs and both took out Moffat County without much trouble. Delta picked up a 52-0 win during Western Slope conference play and the Bulldogs were also the first round playoff opponent for Sterling with the Tigers grabbing a 56-0 decision.
Tight games tilt slightly to Sterling as they’re 3-0 in games decided by single digits while Delta has been involved in just one such game. The Panthers they beat Faith Christian 37-35 in the quarterfinals but all other games have been decided by at least 11 points. Other than the loss to Rifle (47-29), the Panthers have dominated opponents; outscoring them 454-69 in their 11 wins.
One of Sterling’s close wins came last week as they eliminated Resurrection Christian 21-14 in the state quarterfinals. It was their second narrow win over the Cougars as they also picked up a 13-7 overtime win to open the season. Their third narrow win came against Eaton (7-0) in game two of the campaign. Sterling’s lone setback was against Scottsbluff Nebraska and in 11 wins have rolled past opponents by a combined 285 points.
We believe the game may come down to how well Sterling can defend the passing attack of Delta. Panther QB Nolan Bynun has thrown for 2,400 yards and 33 TD’s against just five interceptions this season. And he spreads the ball around to several receivers which prevents a defense from ganging up on one or two receivers.
Hunter Hughes tops the receiving list with 47 receptions for 936 yards and 17 TD’s. Nathan Workman is next with 40 catches for 747 yards and nine scores. Skylar Kraai (26) and Gauge Lockhart (23) have also combined for 49 catches, 740 yards and seven touchdowns.
In last week’s win against Resurrection Christian, Sterling picked off two passes and recorded seven sacks. And those two categories have been strengths the entire season. Overall, the Tigers have forced 29 turnovers including 17 interceptions. Tucker Myers and Jackson Keil each have four and three others have two. Sterling has 28 sacks on the season with nine coming from Keaton Knaub and eight from Drew Book.
Several other players can turn in big plays defensively. The Tigers have 90 tackles behind the line of scrimmage including 22 from Book, 15 from Knaub and 14 from Zach Busmente. Busmente also leads the team in tackles with 76.
On offense, Brock Shalla is the key. The senior has thrown for 1,765 yards and 19 TD’s against just five interceptions. Myers (30) and Keil (25) are the top two receivers and they’ve combined for 10 touchdown catches. McCracken and Peyton Rose each have 13 catches with seven combined touchdowns. Ryan Wecker has just nine catches but three have gone for scores.
Delta’s defense has posted six shutouts this season including four straight to open the season. With 29 sacks and 27 turnovers, the Panthers also have big play threats on that side of the ball. Brandon Butler is among the names to watch. He shares the team lead with seven sacks and also has 21 tackles for loss. Lockhart also has seven sacks. Hughes has five interceptions while Workman and Wilson each have four. James Goff has a team best 89 tackles; Workman 88 and Wilson 82.
While both teams draw attention for throwing the football, each team also has the ability to run. Sterling is led by Conner Polenz with 559 yards and six scores while Shalla adds 488 and six scores. Delta’s top rusher is Ku Moo with 646 yards and five scores. Bynum has added 327 and nine TD’s and Butler is also factor. He’s carried the ball just 14 times but five have resulted in touchdowns.
STERLING’S PLAYOFF RUN
After beating Moffat County 56-14 and Lamar 40-0 in the first two rounds, Sterling was pushed to the end in last week’s 21-14 win over Resurrection Christian. Shalla threw for 176 yards and two touchdowns. The Tigers managed just 76 yards rushing with Polenz totaling 34 and Book 28. Myers caught five passes for 94 yards and a score with Keil latching onto the second touchdown. On defense, the Tigers limited Resurrection Christian to just 54 yards and two yards per carry. As mentioned, they recorded seven sacks and two interceptions. Brady Albrandt and McCracken each finished with 11 tackles and Busmente eight.
DELTA’S PLAYOFF RUN
The Panthers blanked Pagosa Springs 44-0 in the first round and then used a late 40-yard field goal to down Faith Christian 37-35 in the quarterfinals. They edged Basalt 17-6 in the semifinals last week; beating the Longhorns for the second time this season. The defense limited Basalt to 55 yards rushing and also intercepted five passes. Workman and Hughes each had two picks and Wilson collected the fifth. They also picked up five sacks with two apiece coming from Butler and Lockhart. Bynum threw for 180 yards and two scores with both going to Hughes who finished with six catches. Moo ran for 69 yards and Bynume 45.
This is the first-ever playoff meeting between the two schools. Sterling has just one previous state championship game appearance and that came in 2004 where they fell to Rifle 7-6. They are 17-25 all-time in the post-season with nine of those victories coming since 2004. Last week marked just their fourth semifinal appearance. Delta is 22-26 all-time in playoff games. This is their third state championship game appearance but first since 1961. They lost to Lamar (40-14) that year but also captured their lone title the year before by beating Canon City (12-7). This is the first time they’ve won at least three playoff games in one season.