Paonia first-year head coach Blaine Escher was expecting last Friday's zero-week game at Centauri to be tough. Centauri returns a big senior class that includes two all-state honorable mention players. Paonia held the lead through much of the game, with Centauri rallying late in the game for a 20-13 win.
Not a bad start for Paonia, considering that the team has a new head coach and lost a team's worth of seniors to graduation last season.
Paonia is one of three Class 1A ranked in the top 10 in early-season Colorado Preps rankings. Western Slope League Meeker comes in at No. 2, and Cedaredge No. 9.
Senior Caden Meilner will start at quarterback. Meilner paid his dues as a back-up QB and starting quarterback on the junior varsity team. He's watched and worked with several great quarterbacks on this team and has absorbed a lot of information along the way, said Escher. "I feel like it's just going to click."
Jaden Miller is the team's only returning all-state player and the only senior running back on the roster. A third-year starting running back, Miller was the sixth leading rusher in 2016 with 977 yards; as a linebacker he averaged more than five tackles per game.
Also playing at running back are juniors Sackett Chesnik and Jesse Burns. Junior Anthony Felice will play at tight end.
Escher has several wide receivers on the roster, including juniors Soul Connolly, David Lozano, Dillon Coe and Gavin Weiss. Paonia will have a passing game, said Escher, a 2011 PHS graduate and former receiver for the Eagles who went on to play two years at University of Northern Colorado before a career-ending knee injury. "I'm a big firm believer you have to be able to throw the ball. If all you do is run the ball, no one will expect the pass and they'll load the box up on you."
One of Paonia's 11 sophomores, Gray Neal will start at cornerback and receiver. "He's that team player that all coaches dream of having," said Escher. He's stepping up as a leader, and his peers respect him. He worked hard this summer and had the attention of the coaches. Neal will quarterback a few JV games, but will be limited in how much he can play.
Seniors Derek Holt, Levi Peterson and Luis Chavez and sophomore Justin Holt will play both offensive and defensive lines. Clay Campbell and Cyrus Malek-Madani will play O-line and at linebacker. The O-line and D-line average around 215 pounds and one of the biggest lines Paonia's had in recent years, said Escher. And they have experience.
The Eagles have a bye week and will travel to Rye on Sept. 8.
Paonia's home opener is set for Friday, Sept. 15, where it is set to host Ridgeview Academy Rams at an unusual time slot set for a 4 p.m. kickoff.