Saturday's 28-14 semifinal win over Buena Vista means that for the first time in more than 50 years the Paonia football team will play for a state football title.
By the flip of a coin the championship game will be played, for the first time ever, in Paonia.
"They're happy to play another week together," said head coach Brent McRae, whose team will host undefeated Centauri, the team responsible for the only Eagles loss this season. "They know they will have to play well to earn this. But then that's been our motto all along: 'Earn one more.'"
Buena Vista, the defending state runner-up, entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and was undefeated heading into Saturday's game. McRae, whose team has rushed this season for more than 3,500 yards and 38 touchdowns, said he wanted to make a strong first impression. Paonia won the coin toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff.
Playing into the strong winds that came and went throughout the game, the Eagles took eight minutes to make the statement. In its opening drive, Paonia marched the ball 80 yards in 15 runs and a 14-yard pass to Joel Simianer to put Paonia inside the Demons' red zone. Will Austin, who had 10 carries in the 16-play drive, powered his way to the 4-yard line. On first-and-goal, Taylor Walters ducked untouched across the goal line just over eight minutes into the quarter.
On kicker Colby Simpson's first of three PAT attempts, Paonia was dinged five yards on a false start and Simpson's kick was wide.
"We thought they were definitely a bigger team," said Austin, who ended the game with a season-high 253 yards in 33 carries.
There was no plan going into the game for Austin to carry a big load, said McRae. "That's just how it happened." The Demon defense cued in on sophomore quarterback Taylor Walters, who leads the Eagles in rushing, and in doing so they took the pressure off of the senior running back.
Paonia held the Demons to three-and-out on the opening drive. Rather than punt, Buena Vista elected to try for a first down, and Paonia took possession on the Demon 27-yard line. Four plays later, Walters carried for a second touchdown and connected with Joel Simianer in the end zone for the two-point conversion and a 14-point lead with just over a minute remaining in the first quarter.
The Eagles were on another long drive when the Demons recovered a fumble at their own 40-yard line to set up their first touchdown — a short pass from Keegan Wentz to senior Andy McFarland. The PAT left the Demons trailing 14-7 at halftime.
The Eagles missed another scoring opportunity when time ran out at the half, with Paonia in possession at the Demon 11-yard line. Not indicated by the close first-half score, Paonia dominated in both time of possession and yardage.
The Demons were unable to move the ball to start the second half. On their opening possession, Josh Altman picked off a Wentz pass on the Demon 26-yard line. Six plays later, Walters scored from 3 yards out, and Simpson's PAT increased the lead to 21-7 with just over six minutes remaining in the quarter.
The Demons answered, with Wentz connecting with Keenan Barr on a 42-yard pass play with just under five minutes remaining in the third quarter to bring Buena Vista to within seven points.
"We knew they were going to make those big plays," said McRae. "They're a good team. They're tough."
Paonia set up a final score late in the third, with Austin breaking loose on a 46-yard carry to put the ball on the Demon 24-yard line. Walters scored his fourth and final touchdown run with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game, and Simpson's PAT put them ahead, 28-14.
The Demons threatened to score early in the fourth quarter, and on a fourth-and-long situation, a pass by Wentz, intended for Trevor Close in the end zone, was batted down by Joel Simianer. Paonia was able to run out the clock for the win.
Junior defensive back Travis Voight had one interception and six solo tackles, and Logan Schopp had six tackles. Linemen Chase Park, Josh Kimball, Tristan Littlejohn and Tony Darling combined for 12 tackles, including six tackles for a loss. Darling had three of the team's seven quarterback hurries for the game.
After being plagued this season with turnovers, in 57 carries the Eagles lost the ball only once. "It was the best game they've played all year. It was the first time this year I can truly say they were in the game all four quarters," said McRae.
Austin was named Player of the Game by the coaching staff. In addition to being the lead rusher, the senior had a season-high six solo tackles and two deflected passes.
Walters ended the game with four touchdowns and 82 yards rushing.
Running back/linebacker Gunnar Chesnik, one of more than a dozen wrestlers on last year's state champion team, said the win reminded him of his sixth-grade pee-wee team, which went undefeated for the first time in the school's history to win the local Super Bowl. "Once we beat Hotchkiss and Cedaredge I thought we had a chance," said Chesnik, whose dad played for Paonia. "Thanks to the line. We couldn't do it without them."
"There's been a lot of pride up front this year," said center Drewe Lee, one of the unsung heroes on the Paonia line. Lee praised the team for staying calm from the start, despite facing the No. 1-ranked team in the state. "When we're away we do that," said Lee. "In the same sense we were ready to go, ready to perform."
Paonia will have to be ready for the Centauri running game and senior Jason Buhr, who has rushed and received for more than 2,200 yards this season. Centauri upset previously undefeated Limon, the No. 2 seed, 21-8, to advance to Saturday's game. Centauri is also 11-1 after an early-season 20-19 loss to Class 2A Lamar. The Falcons have outscored their playoff opponents, 78-21.
In its first meeting back in week three, Paonia was missing two starting players and Simianer was sidelined the entire second half with an injury. Paonia had three turnovers in the game. The game was one of the closest wins of the season for the Falcons.
"That game was a long time ago," said McRae. "Centauri seems to be coming on strong. The boys know they will have to play well from start to finish."
This Saturday's championship game will be the third for Paonia, which won the state title in 1959 and was state runner-up in 1962. It will be Centauri's first state championship appearance.
"They've gotten better since then, and we've gotten better since then," said McRae. "I think it's going to be a different type of game."
Game time is set for 1 p.m. at Paonia Town Park.blog comments powered by Disqus