Powell wasn’t expected to finish the season in Laramie playing for a state championship.
The Panthers were coming off a 2-7 campaign last year in which they failed to make the Class 3A playoffs under first-year head coach Aaron Papich. Then, on Aug. 27, the Tuesday before the season opener, starting senior quarterback and team captain Ethan Asher was seriously injured in a one-vehicle accident.
While Asher fought for his life in a Billings, Montana, hospital, the Panthers began the season by winning their first three games. A close loss to Douglas was followed by a win over Evanston as the community and the state rallied to offer support, both financially and spiritually, for Asher.
“It started with the leadership on our team with the players,” Papich said. “Even with Ethan’s accident they kept that goal and they continued to push for the brotherhood. They continued to lead because they knew that’s what Ethan wanted them to do.”
Powell finished the regular season losing three of four – 36-0 at Star Valley, 38-14 at Cody and 21-17 at Jackson – and entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the West Conference.
Undaunted, the Panthers went on the road and knocked off East top seed Lander 41-14 in the quarterfinals to set up a rematch with Cody in the semifinals.
“I think that’s where the team aspect comes in,” Papich said. “Our guys really started to lean on each other and they really started to believe in each other as a family and as a brotherhood. I think when that happened we really started to peak and we really started to see what our potential was.”
That potential peaked against Cody in the semifinals.
Less than a month after a 38-14 defeat on the same field, Powell built a 14-0 halftime lead and held on for a 20-7 upset of the Broncs to punch its ticket to War Memorial Stadium.
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Even though Star Valley completed a 12-0 season, and won its 21st consecutive game, with a 49-13 victory in the state championship game, Papich was selected as the 2019 Super 25 Coach of the Year.
“To keep that team together and to keep them moving forward … he deserves this award,” Cody head coach Matt McFadden said. “They were playing for something bigger than a game.”
The Panthers and their fans got a welcome surprise when Asher, accompanied by his family, made the trip from Craig Memorial Rehab in Denver to Laramie for the championship game. Asher, in his wheelchair, took part in the pregame coin flip alongside fellow Powell captains Kadden Abraham, Ryan Good, Brody Karhu and Carson Olsen.
“They knew that Ethan would be back with them,” Papich said, “they just didn’t know when. For him to be with us in Laramie was a miracle and it was an amazing moment for everybody.”
It was also amazing, albeit on a much-smaller scale, that the Panthers found themselves still playing in mid-November. Powell entered the game ninth in 3A in total offense and had more losses (4) than the other nine teams playing for a state title combined (2).
But Papich and his coaching staff knew that with this team the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Any adversity the Panthers faced on the football field paled in comparison to what Asher, their captain and senior leader, was going through.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Papich said. “When things are going great I think it’s easy to say how great your team is. But when things are tough that’s when you really have to do some soul-searching.
“Our guys leaned on each other. We knew we had a really good team and our guys started to believe that. Our trajectory was going up and we continued to do better and better.
“And that all started with our players. It takes courage to step up when you’re a little bit scared anyway. But there was a true brotherhood on this team.”
As Asher continues to make progress, Papich and the Panthers can look back on this season with a sense of pride, knowing what they accomplished on the field likely played a role in Asher’s ongoing recovery.
“It’s about more than football,” McFadden said. “I thought Aaron did a terrific job of picking his kids up and keeping them moving forward. I pray that I’m never in that situation, but the way he handled it was terrific.”
Follow sports editor Jack Nowlin on Twitter @CASJackN