The Paonia Eagles capped the football season with a 21-2 win at Grand Valley Friday night, but it wasn't a pretty win. Paonia lacked big plays, was unable to capitalize on short field situations, and had three critical turnovers, including two in the first quarter. On its opening drive Paonia fumbled the ball away on the Cards' one-yard line.
To start the game with a turnover a yard from the opponent's goal line is "a coach's worst nightmare," said head coach Blaine Escher.
The Cardinals lost their starting quarterback two weeks earlier. After punting the ball on its second possession, Grand Valley fumbled the ball away at its own 24. Paonia was unable to capitalize and turned the ball over on downs.
The Cardinals punted the ball to start the second quarter. The short, high kick gave Paonia possession at the Cardinals' 27-yard line. Jaden Miller had a 24-yard carry on the opening play of the possession. Miller then put Paonia on the board with a three-yard touchdown run up the middle of the Cards' defensive line, followed by a PAT by Caden Meilner with 9:55 remaining in the quarter.
On the Cardinals' next possession, Sam Gomez, who took over at quarterback two weeks earlier following a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Jeff Holbrook, was pressured by Miller and threw an interception into the hands of Jesse Burns at the Cardinals 33-yard line. Miller finished the short drive on a one-yard carry, and Meilner's PAT gave Paonia a 14-0 lead with 2:48 remaining in the half.
Neither team was able to move the ball early in the third quarter. On a punt from inside its own 20, Paonia's snap sailed above Meilner's reach and into the end zone for a Grand Valley safety with 4:12 remaining in the quarter.
On the Eagles' final drive of the game Meilner ran a quarterback sneak into the right corner, and kicked the PAT for a 21-2 lead with 35 seconds remaining in the game.
It was a frustrating game, said Escher. "They wanted to believe they could play their best game all four quarters."
But it was a win, and Paonia enters first-round state playoffs as the No. 9 seed. The Eagles were ranked eighth and in line to host a first-round state playoff game. But some 300 miles away, Limon upset Burlington, giving the Badgers the conference title and a guaranteed first-round playoff home field advantage. As a result, Paonia will travel Saturday for a 1 p.m. game against the eighth-seeded Peyton Panthers, whose sole loss came in week three to 16th-seeded Highland (6-3).
From what he knows about the Panthers, the two teams should match up well, said Escher.
Also on this side of the bracket is defending champions and fourth-seeded Strasburg (8-1) vs. 13th-seed Wray, No. 5 Burlington vs. #12 Platte Canyon. Undefeated Bennett is the top seed. The winner of the Paonia/Peyton game will face the winner of the Bennett-Highland game.
Also representing the 1A Western Slope conference is No. 2 Meeker. It hosts No. 15 Cornerstone Christian.