Paonia head football coach Blaine Escher made no bones about it. The strategy going into Saturday's first-round state football playoff Saturday at Peyton focused on the wind.
Winds and gusts officially measuring from 15-49 mph battered the field throughout the game and were a major factor in setting their game strategy, said Escher. Regardless of whether they were playing into or with the wind, "You could not even put the ball in the air," or it would blow off track, said Escher. "Honestly, it was even hard to run."
Escher predicted a close first-round win. Paonia was 7-2 heading into the game and was seeded ninth; at 8-1, Peyton was seeded eighth. They play a similar offense, their defense sized up well, and their seasons, marked by blowout wins and close losses, have taken similar paths, said Escher.
But in the end, and in a game almost completely void of penalties, the lower seed prevailed and Paonia headed home with a 13-0, with quarterback Caden Meilner and running back Jaden Miller each rushing for a one-yard touchdown. With the exception of 11th-seeded Monte Vista's 39-34 win over Clear Creek, the score was the closest of the eight first-round games.
Paonia played into the wind to start the game, receiving the opening kickoff and ultimately turning the ball over on downs at the Peyton 17-yard line after eating more than five minutes off the clock.
The first Eagles TD came in the final seconds of the half. After being forced to punt on fourth-and-20, Paonia held Peyton to a three-and-out. A short punt into the wind by Peyton gave Paonia possession at the Panthers' 39-yard line.
The Eagles proceeded to drive up the field on carries by Jesse Burns, Sackett Chesnik and Miller. After converting on three third-down situations, Meilner capped the drive on a one-yard touchdown run with just over one minute remaining in the half. Rather than attempt a PAT into the wind, Paonia opted for the two-point conversion, with Miller being stopped inches from the goal line.
In the second half Eagle Anthony Felice's opening kickoff blew straight into the end zone for a touchback. As the Panthers lined up for their opening play, Paonia quickly adjusted the defense and Peyton called a time out. The Panthers then marched the ball to the Paonia 41. After getting pushed back from the line of scrimmage on a third-down play, Peyton took a second timeout, then turned the ball over on downs on an incomplete pass.
Paonia fumbled the ball away on the ensuing possession, but a deflected pass by Miller forced the Panthers to again turn the ball over on downs.
With the wind at their backs, and no time-outs left for Peyton, Paonia had a big advantage in the fourth quarter. After losing the ball on downs on a tackle for a loss by Felice, Paonia took possession at midfield. On first down, Chesnik busted loose for a 17-yard run to the Peyton 33. The Eagles inched their way to the one-yard line in six carries, and with 6:26 to go, Miller followed a block by Derek Holt, Cyrus Malek-Madani and Clay Campbell and stepped untouched into the end zone. Meilner kicked the PAT -- his 41st of the season -- for a 13-0 lead.
Paonia is one of two Western Slope league teams still alive in the playoffs, and their biggest challenge lies ahead. This week's quarterfinal opponent, Bennett, is undefeated and seeded first in Class 1A. Last Friday they blanked No. 16 Highland with a first-round, 48-point win. The winner will advance to the semifinals and play the winner of the game between fourth-seeded Strasburg and fifth-seeded Burlington.
Meeker, the only other Western Slope team still alive, and one of three undefeated teams in the state, is the No. 2 seed. The Cowboys routed Cornerstone Christian Academy Saturday, 50-0, and face number 10 Limon, a perennial team in state playoffs, this Saturday.