Evergreen comes up with clutch win vs. rival Conifer

24-19 win earns Cougars a likely playoff berth and Mountain Bowl trophy

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If there was one overarching storyline for the Evergreen Cougars football team this season, it would be about overcoming serious setbacks and finding ways to come back stronger.

If there was one overarching storyline for the Conifer Lobos this football season, it would be about playing with an abundance of heart and getting so close to success but seeing it slip away.

Both storylines continued right through the final regular-season game for both squads, where they met Nov. 5 for their annual clash known as The Mountain Bowl.

The game, held at Conifer, also served as the team’s seniors’ night celebration, giving the 3-6 team more than enough motivation to want to close out a season filled with close losses with a resounding win versus a rival. That motivation showed too, with senior Zach Zalfa throwing a touchdown early in the first quarter.

Evergreen blocked the point-after kick but was also forced to punt away the team’s next possession.

With the ball back, Conifer’s offense began marching down the field thanks largely to the dual rushing threats of senior Gauge Womack and Nicolas Hudson. After a couple first downs, the Lobos carried the ball and the lead into the second quarter, reaching the Evergreen 36.

But the Cougar defense found its footing, starting with three good tackles at the line, including a stuff by defensive tackle Max Johnson on third-and-nine. That set up a fourth down, where Zalfa tried to swing right looking for an open receiver, but found nothing promising and had to throw it away.

The Cougars took over on downs and began their own march. Junior quarterback Tommy Poholsky made two passes for a first down, and then Junior Gabe Zimmerer moved the chains with a run. And so it went until Poholsky hit Kelter Ocasek with a sideline pass to take the Cougars to the Lobo 17.

Poholsky kept the ball on the next down to move them five yards closer to the end zone. Zimmerer then finished off the drive, running it the rest of the way in for his first of two rushing touchdowns.

The point after was good, and with 9:26 left in the half, Evergreen had the lead.

On the ensuing kick off, the Cougars tried to surprise with an onside kick, but the Lobo special teams unit was ready, and junior John Simms covered the ball.

“I’m extremely proud of our kids’ fight,” Conifer head coach John Shipley said of his team.

And that fight showed, because the Lobos came right back with two impressive plays. Starting on his own 48 yard-line, Womack took the handoff, swung left and zoomed past a good number of Evergreen defenders, finally taken down on the Evergreen 21. Then it was Hudson’s turn, carrying the ball the rest of the way to the promise land for another Lobo touchdown and the lead.

The two-point conversion failed, making the score 12-7 with nine minutes still left in the half.

The rival squads traded possessions for the rest of the half, neither able to sustain a drive into scoring territory, though Evergreen got close. Again, it would be a monster pass by Poholsky that would set up a Cougar scoring opportunity. A bomb of a throw took Evergreen from its own 26 to the Lobo red zone during the last two minutes of the half.

But Womack, who was a standout through the whole game on both sides of the ball, ensured his team carried its lead into the locker room at halftime when he snagged a rare tipped pass from Poholsky.

“In the first half we were playing with heart, but our heads weren’t into it,” Poholsky said. “It was a rough first half, but we rallied.”

Evergreen head coach Matt Van Praag concurred that it was largely a mental attitude adjustment that let his team improve in the second half.

“We’ve banded together and grown together. We continue to do this for Coach Poholsky,” Van Praag said, referencing his Assistant Coach Tom Poholsky (Tommy’s father) who passed away unexpectedly on Oct. 6.

During Evergreen’s first possession of the second half, Tommy Poholsky’s passing accuracy continued to pay dividends. A bullet-like pass on third down to senior Jacob Rutherford got the Cougars across midfield. Then, after a holding penalty set up a third-and-15, Poholsky made another clutch pass to enter the Conifer red zone.

“I feel like I have a connection with all my receivers,” Poholsky said after the game. “They’re putting the work in to be the best they can be, and so am I.”

Poholsky ended the game with a stat line of 20 receptions on 29 throws for 181 yards. He connected with seven total receivers, including a touchdown pass to Rutherford.

Zimmer would finish the drive with the second of his two rushing touchdowns to make the score 14-12.

The second half saw Evergreen start to take control with longer drives and more scoring chances. Kicker Owen Pardo made a 46-yard field goal to extend the Cougar lead 17-14.

Conifer was forced into a three-and-out on its next possession, and Evergreen made another march, leading all the way to a third-and-goal from the 3 yard-line. Poholsky tried for the QB sneak over the line but didn’t make it, or maybe did. The play was whistled dead even as he seemed to stretch his arms and the ball into the end zone.

While Poholsky had been able to run a bit against other opponents this year, scoring rushing touchdowns against four other opponents, the Conifer D-line contained him to negative rushing yards on the night.

Zimmer finally punched the ball across the line for good. With the extra point, the Cougars had a 24-12 lead with just 4:25 left in the fourth quarter.

Conifer’s Shipley admits that his team “got a little tired on defense, especially when they were going NASCAR mode,” referring to the no-huddle, fast-paced Cougar approach through much of the second half.

The Lobos still had fight in them though. After the kickoff, the Conifer offense worked its way down the field from its own 29. With Zalfa throwing some risky passes, the home team scored another touchdown and made the extra point to make it 24-19 with 2:30 left to play.

The ensuing on-sides kick attempt failed, but so did Evergreen’s attempts to move the ball, punting it away on fourth-and-14.

Womack was back to receive the punt for Conifer, and the 150-pound player ran like hell, cutting through almost the entire Evergreen team before being brought down deep in Cougar territory. Unfortunately, the amazing effort was cut in half by an illegal block in the back.

The Lobos were left with less than a minute on the clock and half of the field to cover. Zalfa’s first pass was to a deep Lobo receiver, but the Evergreen secondary had the man triple-teamed. On second down, same story. Third down was a shorter attempt, over the middle, but this time Evergreen senior Ty Cox was there to make the interception and end the game.

“The energy’s incredible!” Cox said following the win, surrounded by celebrating teammates.

“He’s just been a kid who’s grinded for four years and finally has had his opportunity to play,” Van Praag said. “It’s wonderful to see, and that’s the kind of kid you want in your program.”

Van Praag added that the secondary players in general would be facing a few extra push-ups this week for not getting more of those possible interceptions.

Coach Shipley said he was impressed with several of his players’ performances, including Mason Rosser on defense and Womack.

“He’s special and will be a success no matter what he does,” Shipley said of Womack.

Shipley added that the loss to Evergreen would be just one of several close games that his relatively young team would use to fuel their desire for a better 2022 campaign.

The win helped improve Evergreen’s post-season standing. The Cougars play Durango on Nov. 13 in first-round action.

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