Defense comes up big in Niwot homecoming win

Niwot students join their team on the field after their dramatic come-from-behind victory over the Littleton Lions for Homecoming.

A downtown Niwot parade was not the only tradition that Niwot High did away with for Homecoming 2018. Thanks to a Julian Molina fumble recovery in the end zone with just seconds to go, the Cougars clinched their first homecoming victory in more than a decade.

“Eric [Ruiz] blew through and hit the quarterback, and as soon as he hit the quarterback, the ball came out, and I just jumped on it,” the junior linebacker said after the Cougars’ comeback win in front of a rambunctious crowd at Everly-Montgomery Field on Friday night. His serendipitous play broke a 10-10 tie and kept the game from going to overtime. “It was just a football instinct to get on the ball, and I couldn’t do it without my brothers. They made that sack, and I just recovered it.”

That was just one of several game-changing plays by the Niwot defense late in the 17-10 win over the Littleton Lions. Early in the fourth quarter, the Cougars stopped a time-consuming Littleton drive when senior Angelo Salazar recovered a Lions fumble on the 1-yard line and kept them from scoring a go-ahead touchdown. Two series later, they recovered another Lions fumble, which led to the game-tying field goal by senior kicker Josh Palomares.

“There’s nothing special to it,” senior DaeMontae Terry said of his team’s big plays. Terry had an interception on Littleton’s last drive of the game, as well as six tackles. “We just practiced all week for this moment and then we got here and we performed. We just worked for it.”

The dramatic second half eclipsed a first half where highlights were rare for the Cougars. Littleton got on the board early, thanks to a Niwot fumble on the Cougars’ second play from scrimmage, which the Lions recovered on their own 39 yard-line, and then turned into seven points a few plays later. Niwot struggled to move the ball, mostly due to costly penalties. A promising drive into Lions territory during the second quarter ended in a Niwot punt after a fourth-and-short turned into 4th-and-11 thanks to two procedural calls, and another ended in a missed field goal. Niwot went into the break trailing 7-0.

“Certainly we had our mistakes again tonight,” Niwot Head Coach Jeremy Lanter said. “My philosophy is ‘bend, don’t break’ and keep everything in front of you, so we were at least able to keep most of that contained. I thought the defense played a phenomenal game. They really do a good job of keeping us in things.”

A half-time pep talk got the Cougars back on track, despite a Littleton field goal early in the third quarter. After Terry returned a punt deep into Littleton territory, running back Liam Flanagan was able to find some open space, and finally put some Niwot points on the board. Flanagan now has four touchdowns on the season, and added another 72 yards to his team-leading 391 all-purpose yards. Terry finished the night with another 142 yards in kick returns, upping his all-purpose yardage total to 378.

“Coach told us ‘we’re still in this’, and we realized we were,” Terry said of the team’s turnaround in the second half. “When we came out and made that first big play, we already knew we were changing it. When we scored our first touchdown, we knew it was over.”

Sophomore quarterback Ayden Bartko had 104 yards passing on the night, much of it to senior Jonathan Colon (65), including a key fourth-quarter catch for more than 30 yards. Junior Izaiah Golden had 23 receiving yards, while sophomore Julian Bell had 13.

There was certainly more to the defense than just big plays. Cougar pass rushers Lucas Steiner and Zach Vigil repeatedly hurried Littleton’s freshman quarterback, and each recorded a sack in the game. Cory Rathburn also continued to dominate with another eight solo tackles.

The comeback win is no doubt a confidence booster for the Cougars, who head into their bye week feeling that their hard work is finally paying off.

“We are not a team that gives up any more,” Flanagan said. “We’re a team that keeps pushing. If we see a team that wants to fold, we’ll dominate them.”

Up next for the Cougars is their final non-conference game, on the road against Eagle Valley on Sept. 28.