Palmer Ridge stumbles in nailbiter; Loveland heads to state championship

Nov. 26—It was a tale of two fan bases following Palmer Ridge's 10-7 loss to visiting Loveland Saturday in the Class 4A football state semifinals.

The Bears exchanged hugs, tears and words of encouragement between football players, coaches, school staff, students and parents.

The Red Wolves cheered, took selfies, and visiting players swiftly chided ecstatic fans who planted the school's flag at Don Breese Stadium in Monument in a manner that would make Baker Mayfield smile.

The excitement was brought on by the dramatic fashion in which Loveland won the game.

The Bears had the ball on the Loveland 20-yard line, down three points with just 11 seconds remaining in the game. The Red Wolves called a timeout. Instead of opting for a field goal on a windy day to tie the game, the Bears' coaching staff had the offense run one more play.

The result was disastrous for Palmer Ridge.

The ensuing snap was high and sailed over the head of Bears junior quarterback Derek Hester. Loveland sacked Hester as he recovered the ball. The visiting section erupted in cheers and Loveland defenders celebrated as time expired on the game and on Palmer Ridge's season.

"Just try to get a few more yards, that wind was blowing pretty good," head coach Mike Armentrout said of the decision to call another play on offense. "Try to get a few more yards and then try our shot at the end there."

The result was the first and only loss for Palmer Ridge this season. The Bears had previously been undefeated at 12-0. The last time these two teams played was in the Class 4A finals in the fall 2020 season. Also, a Loveland victory.

Saturday, Palmer Ridge nearly had a comeback story for the ages.

After stopping the Red Wolves who were threatening to score from inside Palmer Ridge's 15-yard line, the Bears got the ball on downs with 2 1/2 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to erase the 3-point deficit. Then, Loveland junior defensive end Caden Stansbury made the play of the Red Wolves' season to that point. He got blindside pressure on Hester and stole the ball, sacking Hester in the process.

Loveland again tried to score but the Bears' defense held, turning the Red Wolves over on downs once more. The Bears got the ball back with just over a minute remaining. Using a passing game that hadn't been successful for either team all game, Palmer Ridge nearly drove the length of the field on the back of Hester's arm and a few sideline catches from junior James Weir.

"I was just thinking. 'let's just put our kicking unit in the best possible situation to get some points on the board,'" Hester said of the drive. "I'm excited for next year, I'm going to miss all these guys. (They're) brothers, man."

Palmer Ridge struck first in the game with a 1-yard rush from Hester set up by a long run from senior running back Nathaniel Robinson.

Loveland struggled to gain ground against the Bears' defense in the early going but began to find a rhythm near the end of the first half. Still, Palmer Ridge kept the visitors out of the end zone and went in with a 7-3 lead at half time.

Loveland turned the tables on Palmer Ridge immediately to start the second half with an 80-yard touchdown run from Red Wolves senior quarterback Garrett Harstad on the first play from scrimmage.

The defense and special teams of both squads took over after that.

Bears sophomore punter Rhett Armstrong had a great day, with punts that flipped the field and pinned Loveland deep in their own territory. Harstad's score excepted, the Red Wolves were never up to the task of driving the length of the field.

"He had himself a day right there," Armentrout said of Armstrong. "He put them in some pretty tough spots. He was consistent, he was banging the ball man ... he definitely played a huge role in the field-position battle."

The Bears felt the sting of defeat despite their good play and when some players showed their frustration Armentrout implored his players to keep their heads up.

Parents, coaches and friends did the same.

"Monument's a special place, they're special people it's a special community," Armentrout said. "Everybody has their whole heart in the football team and the football program and the school. There's incredible things going on at Palmer Ridge and in this community. They'll let you know about it when they're not happy with you but they'll let you know that they know how much you love them. So really proud of our group."