Colton Wheeler reacts after his team pulled out a 45-43 win over Richey-Lambert. (TOM WYLIE/MTN Sports)

VALIER — When the final whistle blew on Saturday, Valier senior Colton Wheeler dropped to his knees, tears of joy streaming down his face.

“This is the most emotional game I’ve ever been in,” Wheeler said. “I’ve never been so proud of myself and my teammates. We finally did it and it just took all of us, and it hit me straight in the heart. I’ve never felt so emotional in my life.”

His Panthers held on for a 45-43 victory over visiting Richey-Lambert, withstanding a furious fourth-quarter rally from the Fusion to advance to the 6-Man semifinals for the first time since 2012.

In the postgame huddle no one was more excited than head coach Eric Watson. He leaped into the air and let out a shout, “We’re still dancing!”

Colton Wheeler reacts after his team pulled out a 45-43 win over Richey-Lambert. (TOM WYLIE/MTN Sports)
Colton Wheeler reacts after his team pulled out a 45-43 win over Richey-Lambert. (TOM WYLIE/MTN Sports)
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That’s one proud coach.

“Just very blessed to be part of these boys’ lives right now,” Watson said.

With the win, Valier (9-1) earned a rematch with top-ranked and undefeated Hot Springs (11-0). The Savage Heat handed the Panthers their only loss of the season in humbling fashion, running to a 51-0 shutout on Valier’s home field.

“These kids, they’ve been working all year long since that game, and its one week at a time and don’t look ahead,” Watson said. “But now we can finally get a shot to come up on the upside of this one. It’s a semifinal game, that’s what these kids have fought for all year long.”

The Panthers are much improved since that season opening loss on Sept. 2, and feature a dynamic offense that was on full display Saturday afternoon. Colten Curry, a 6-foot-6 receiver, hauled in three touchdown passes, including a 70-yard score in the third quarter when he reached over top of a shorter defender to pluck a pass from Wheeler out of the air.

“It’s pretty fun,” Watson said of his offense. “Each week we try to throw a new wrinkle in and it’s been working, we just have great athletes here in Valier and it makes our job easy to do.”

Valier players high five after their 45-43 win over Richey-Lambert. (TOM WYLIE/MTN Sports)
Valier players high five after their 45-43 win over Richey-Lambert. (TOM WYLIE/MTN Sports)

When the Panthers go to the ground it’s Wheeler or senior running back Isaac Ramos doing the work.

“We can give (Isaac) a dump off and he’s amazing in space,” Wheeler said. “He’s got all the little juke moves. Between him and Curry and Koltin Christiaens – we have this dynamic offense that’s at times really, really hard to stop.”

The offense, defense and special teams will need to find a new gear against Hot Springs and record-breaking back Trevor Paro, the state’s all-time leader in touchdowns.

“We’ve been excited for a while,” Wheeler said. “We saw them on our side of the bracket and we thought we had a good shot the first couple rounds of the playoffs. We’re just happy to get a second shot at them because I think we can give them a run for their money this time.”

Saturday’s 6-Man semifinal is set for 1 p.m. in Hot Springs. The winner will face either Bridger or Westby-Grenora for a 6-Man state title on Nov. 19.

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