Niwot generated more than 300 yards of offense against Greeley Central in week two, but football games are often won or lost over much shorter distances. Unfortunately, the Cougars had to contemplate that painful lesson on a long bus ride home after falling 17-14 to the Wildcats thanks to some untimely miscues.
“Football is an interesting game in the sense that the little inches that you need are all over the field,” Niwot head coach Jeremy Lanter said after the narrow loss. “There were times when we took advantage of those inches and did what we were supposed to and there were sometimes when things just didn't bounce our way.”
That was literally true in the closing seconds of the third quarter, as the Cougars drove for their second score in the half. As senior running back Liam Flanagan crossed the goal line, the ball popped free and was recovered by the Wild Cats for a touch back. That gave Greeley Central a much needed momentum boost, and a long run on their next possession would seal Niwot’s fate.
“If we score walking into the fourth quarter and take a two score lead, then that game looks a little bit different, but we made a mistake,” Lanter said. “The cool thing to watch from a coaching perspective is to watch just how much fight our kids have despite those mistakes. And mistakes happen all over the field. If you watch any NFL or college or high school game you're going to see mistakes. Those mistakes hurt us tonight, but we did a ton of really, really great things.”
One of those great things was the performance of junior quarterback Ayden Bartko, who went a career-best 14-for-24 with 200 yards and two touchdowns on the night. Though he wasn’t quite able to engineer a Cougars’ comeback on their final drive, Lanter was heartened by the clear strides the 11th grader has made since 2018.
“Ayden managed the clock 1,000 times better this year,” he said. “We didn’t have any timeouts, and he managed the ball all the way down. He knew what we were looking for throughout that whole drive. We had a couple of dropped passes that stopped it, butI thought his choices were great.”
Junior Isaac Fisk was on the receiving end of both of Bartko’s touchdown passes, and it’s hard to decide which was more dramatic. In the first, he leapt over a defender to nab a 21-yard pass in the end zone, putting Niwot ahead 6-3,In the third, he took a 20-yard pass from Bartko in stride, and scrambled another 53-yards down the sidelines to give the Cougars a 14-10 lead.
“That wasn’t even me, that was my teammates,” Fisk said of his long touchdown. “They were blocking for me like crazy. They got the guy behind me, and then Noterman came up and blocked a guy so I could cut back, so that’s all them.”
Niwot also got key receptions from senior Blake Bair and Julian Bell. On the ground, five rushers combined for 113 yards, including Flanagan (13-for-55) and senior Julian Molina, who went 8-for-34 in his season debut.
“Julian runs in a very different style than Liam does, and we knew coming into this game that we were going to try to give them both touches and kind of see how that unfolded,” Lander said of the running back tandem. “I think they both did a great job sharing that workload tonight.”
Aside from an unfortunate lapse on the Wild Cats’ last touchdown, Lanter couldn’t find much to criticize in Niwot’s defensive performance. The Cougars held the Wild Cats to less than 300 yards of total offense, and made at least three key stops in the red zone. Niwot’s linebackers kept steady pressure on Wild Cats’ quarterback Nathan Escobar, whose 116 passing yards came almost entirely on a single play.
“Those kids have done a really good job getting better and better every week,” Lanter said. “Our defense gave us tons of inches tonight because they gave us chances.”
Niwot will be back on the field against Fort Lupton at home on Friday, September 13. Lanter is optimistic that the Cougars will be able to pull off a win for the homecoming crowd for the second year in a row.
“I really do think it’s just a matter of time. I talk to the kids all the time about what we call ‘pounding the stone’. A stonecutter picks up a hammer and starts swinging it at a stone. How many swings will it take before he breaks the rock? I don’t know, but we have to keep swinging it. They’re so close.”