There must be something to that black magic.
Friday night, the Park City High School football team took the field dressed in black, just like the University of Utah Utes had done the night before when they beat Texas Christian University (TCU) with a few last-minute, game-saving plays. As if pulling a page from the Utah playbook, the Miners beat Cedar City 11-8 with late-game heroics to earn a trip to ironically the University of Utah’s Rice Eccles Stadium for the 3A state semifinals.
Much like TCU, Cedar was a powerful and skilled team that seemed to have no problem making big plays. Luckily, just like the Utes, the Park City defense came to play. Cedar dominated possession for much of the game, but was never able to put many points on the board. On the other side of the ball, Park City had some trouble getting its offense going. According to Park City head coach Brandon Matich, running back Dylan Chynoweth was not feeling 100 percent, which, along with a stingy Cedar defense, stymied Park City’s usually strong running game.
"I knew this was the best defense we would face all year," Matich said.
Cedar was able to get a touchdown in the second quarter on a four-yard touchdown run by Matt Grover, followed by a two-point conversion to give the Redmen the 8-0 lead. The Miners were unable to get onto the scoreboard until the third quarter, when all-star kicker Ben Portwood, Louis Sakoda-style, kicked a 28-yard field goal.
In the fourth quarter, Park City’s Tony Epperson turned in his first of two key interceptions in the end zone to stop the Redmen from scoring. It came with just under nine-minutes left, giving the Miners a touchback and placing the ball on the 20-yard line. One play later, as if calling on the spirit of Utah quarterback Brian Johnson for late-game heroics, Park City quarterback Erik Walker scored a touchdown on a 70-yard quarterback keeper. A successful two-point conversion followed and the Miners were up 11-8. After that, Cedar made an effort to get back in the end zone, but another Epperson end zone interception sealed the win.
"Gary Bower [Park City defensive coordinator] always keeps the kids prepared. Our defense was huge," Matich said. "I told the kids defense would win the game."
Epperson, a senior who has lived through most of the Miners’ last-second playoff losses in the last few years, was determined to change things this year in any way possible.
"I’ve had so many experiences of losing in the last minute," he said. "There was no doubt in my mind that I could do it … As soon as he threw, I knew this was my pick."
It was also his last game at Dozier Field, and he was overcome at how things ended.
"It was the greatest feeling in the world," he said, his face streaked with sweat and tears. "I never dreamed of this with the skills of the past teams. When Coach Matich came, he made us all believe."
Walker, who ended the game with 105 yards on 12 carries, was equally in awe. His fourth quarter touchdown run gave the Miners more yards in that quarter than the other three combined.
"There was a hole and I took it," Walker said. "This was our last game. We knew we could do it. We needed one more play and that’s what we did."
Matich said that, although he knew they had a tough opponent in Cedar, he still believed his team could pull out the win.
"I never hit the panic button," he said.
After two years entering the playoffs as the No.1 team and state champion favorite, this is the first time the Miners will make the trip to Rice Eccles for the semifinals. In past years, the team has entered the playoffs with a college-bound star player and a virtually spotless record and then lost in the early rounds. That made this year’s team, which suffered a number of early season losses, that much more special. Matich said that the total team effort gave the Miners the edge.
"In years past, we had the Matt Wrights and Jared Tews, but this year we had a lot of players who made plays," he said. "All along I knew we had the talent, I didn’t know we had the team."
He also said that home-field advantage and the teams they drew in the playoffs all helped the team to make it to the semifinals this year.
"We had the perfect equation," he said.
Things will get more complicated this week as the Miners face their toughest test yet, playing top-ranked Juan Diego in the semifinals. The Soaring Eagle beat a very talented Logan squad on Friday, 28-21, and the Miners know that beating them will be a tall order.
"I’m looking forward to it," said Matich. "We tell the kids, ‘This is where we want to be, but this is not the end of it.’"
The Miners will face Juan Diego at the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium on Friday at 6:30 p.m.
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Starting Friday, fires and charcoal grilling will only be allowed in improved fire pits or grills on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.