ZEPHYR - Seven days after surviving one Top 10 showdown, the No. 5 Zephyr Bulldogs find themselves in another. The No. 7 Panther Creek Panthers will invade Zephyr at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Bulletin’s Six-Man Game of the Week, where a Bulldog victory would all but lock up a third straight district championship.
Zephyr (6-2, 3-0) and Panther Creek (6-2, 3-0) enter the game with identical records and share the top spot in Six-Man Division II’s District 13. Sitting a game back in the standings is No. 9 Cherokee (5-3, 2-1), which Zephyr outlasted 84-70 last week and Panther Creek faces next week.
If the Bulldogs come away with the victory Friday, they will clinch the district’s top playoff seed regardless of their Week 10 result at Brookesmith (4-4, 1-2). Zephyr would have defeated both Panther Creek and Cherokee, therefore, the Bulldogs would win a tiebreaker with either team that resulted from a potential loss against Brookesmith in the finale.
A Zephyr win Friday also would result in the winner of next week’s Panther Creek-Cherokee showdown earning the district’s second playoff berth regardless of the result of the Zephyr-Brookesmith contest.
If Panther Creek steals the win Friday, then the playoff picture gets tricky. The Panthers would be in the driver’s seat for a district championship, which they would earn with a win over Cherokee. If that scenario occurs, Zephyr would finish as the second playoff seed if it defeats Brookesmith.
However, if Panther Creek defeats Zephyr, then Cherokee knocks off the Panthers and Zephyr beats Brookesmith, all three teams would finish tied for the district championship and a tiebreaker would determine which two teams would continue their season.
If the Bulldogs lost to both Panther Creek and Brookesmith, and Cherokee defeated Panther Creek next week, the Bulldogs would then miss the playoffs.
“Going into this year our goal was a district championship, but it’s going to be tough,” said Zephyr head coach Landon Buffe. “Honestly I think all three of us are on a level playing field. We match up about the same.”
Buffe added he expects another shootout this week as both the Bulldogs and Panthers have put up impressive numbers in the past month-plus.
Zephyr carries a five-game win streak into Friday’s game and has outscored its foes an average of 65-23 during that span. The Bulldogs reached the 84-point mark twice in the last five games and had allowed just 46 points prior to Cherokee’s offensive outburst last week. Panther Creek, meanwhile, has reeled off six straight wins since opening the season with back-to-back losses. In their six victories, the Panthers are averaging 61 points per game while surrendering 21 points.
Both teams have knocked off state-ranked opponents during their runs with Zephyr’s win coming last week over Cherokee, while Panther Creek began its streak with a 71-26 victory over No. 10 Sidney.
One of the concerns for the Bulldogs heading into the game is the defense, which suddenly looked vulnerable last week. Zephyr had not allowed more than 62 points in game this season - and that came at the hands of Division I No. 2 Strawn - but Cherokee racked up 54 points before halftime. Zephyr did stiffen after halftime, however, and allowed just 16 points in the final two quarters.
“We did start off slow, but we got a turnover or two and that was the difference in the ball game,” Buffe said. “Against Panther Creek it’s going to be pretty much the same thing as Cherokee. They execute so well on offense it’s going to be hard to stop them. Whoever makes a couple of stops or gets the turnovers is who is going to win.”
Panther Creek’s offense is led by Stephen Hoelscher and Jake Stewart. Two weeks ago in a 66-20 win over Brookesmith, Hoelscher ran for 150 yards and six touchdowns on 10 carries, while Stewart caught a 47-yard touchdown pass.
Zephyr counters with one of the most dangerous spread backs in the state in Jason Hughes. Last week against Cherokee, Hughes completed 17-of-27 passes for 281 yards with six touchdowns, rushed for 278 yards and five scores on 21 carries and caught a 50-yard touchdown pass as the Bulldogs produced 674 yards of total offense.
For the season, Hughes has completed 85-of-149 passes for 1,461 yards with 23 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,369 yards and 23 more scores.
Other offensive weapons for the Bulldogs include receivers Cody Wallin (27-695, 12 TDs) and Ethan Fisher (11-259, 5 TDs), while Cord Biddy, Haustin Simmons and Greg Faubion have provided a spark both rushing and catching the ball.
“Last week we could pretty much run whatever we wanted and we could score, but Cherokee could do the same thing,” Buffe said. “That’s what made it tough.”
In charge of slowing down the Panther Creek attack will a defense led by Biddy, who recorded a team-high 16 tackles last week; Hughes, who tallied 14 tackles and returned an interception 17 yards for a touchdown; Taylor Hart and Lacy Culpepper, who combined for 23 tackles between them a week ago.
“We think it’s going to be another dogfight,” Buffe said.