BOONE — The High Country Grizzlies made sure that the underdog Dayton Wolfpack would not pull any type of an April Fool’s joke on them.
Hosting the Wolfpack at the Holmes Center on April 1, the Grizzlies’ defense was no joking matter to an overwhelmed Dayton offense. High Country’s defense intercepted seven passes, returning four of them for touchdowns, and that was just the beginning.
By the time the Grizzlies crushed Dayton 94-6 in front of an estimated Holmes crowd of about 1,200 fans, High Country was disappointed that they didn’t score 100 points and that they did not shut the Wolfpack out.
It was important to Grizzlies head coach Josh Resignalo that the team didn’t let up in the second half despite taking a 62-0 lead into halftime.
“One of the main things we were working on in the second half was to stay composed, don’t fall down to stupid penalties and to finish — don’t stop,” Resignalo said. “We’re not trying to stop ourselves to prevent ourselves from scoring so they feel better. This is a professional game. We were trying to score 100, but we ran the ball more in the third quarter to take care of bodies.”
The Grizzlies (2-1) had rolled up its imposing halftime lead by intercepting four first-half passes and sacking the Wolfpack’s quarterbacks eight times. The two main Grizzlies thieves were Brandon Fuentes, who returned two of his three picks for touchdowns, and Jimmy Legree, who returned one of his three interceptions for a TD.
Mackenzie Williams, who normally plays receiver but was pressed into defensive duty because of an injury the previous week to linebacker Darius Lipford, got into the act when his second-half pick-six, which he returned 23 yards for a score, gave the Grizzlies a 75-0 lead and started talk of the Grizzlies scoring 100 points.
Fuentes opened the interceptions floodgates with a 28-yard pick six in the first half that gave the Grizzlies a 35-0 lead. It was the first of three straight Dayton drives that ended with an interception.
Legree returned his first pick for a 16-yard touchdown to give High Country a 41-0 lead. Legree grabbed his second pick on Dayton’s next drive, which set up a 7-yard TD pass from Stephen Panasuk to Malachi Jones and a 48-0 Grizzlies lead.
Fuentes also had a 38-yard pick-six that gave the Grizzlies a 94-6 advantage late in the game. Fuentes said he was just reading the plays and reacting to the passes on his interceptions.
“Reading the route and just being in the right place at the right time, then just making a good play on the ball,” Fuentes said. “Our defensive line played really well, so it made it easy on the back end.”
High Country’s defense combined with the special teams to get the Grizzlies on the scoreboard by blocking a Wolfpack field goal attempt on Dayton’s first drive. Defensive tackle Brandon Sutter recovered and returned it three yards for a touchdown.
There is no punting in arena football. Teams can either attempt a field goal or go for a first down on fourth downs.
The Grizzlies added a touchdown by holding the Wolfpack on downs at the Dayton 3-yard line. One play later, 285-pound fullback Undra Hendrix bulled over for a touchdown, giving High Country a 15-0 lead before Panasuk had a chance to pass the ball.
Sutton blocked another field goal, but the Wolfpack (0-3) retained possession after the Grizzlies were called for an illegal defense.
High Country’s defensive line constantly harassed Dayton quarterbacks James Moreland and Terez Wilkins, who were constantly flushed out of the pocket. Wilkins, who is also a receiver and the team’s third-string quarterback, tossed four interceptions in the first half and the Wolfpack was sacked seven times in the first half and nine times during the game.
“It didn’t matter who was quarterbacking and it didn’t matter who lined up in front of us,” Sutton said. “We’ve got one job and that is to penetrate all night.”
The Grizzlies’ offense did not turn the ball over the entire game. Jones led the team’s offense by catching four of Panasuk’s seven touchdown passes in the game, and finished with five catches for 74 yards.
Panasuk also tossed touchdown passes of 16 and 19 yards to Daron Clark also scored on a 1-yard run. Clark had four catches for 40 yards.
Jarius Spain, the Grizzlies’ 6-foot-4, 315-pound tackle and part-time tight end, even caught a 10-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, giving the team a 28-0 lead.
“We just tried to send a message, that’s all it was,” Panasuk said. “That’s the goal every time we step on the field is to send a message.”
It remains to be seen if Jacksonville, the Grizzlies’ next opponent, has received that message. The Sharks were the preseason favorite to win the NAL championship and showed they are for real with a 57-43 win over the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks, who beat the Grizzlies 48-42 on March 25.
The Sharks invade the Holmes Center at 3:30 p.m. on April 9.