Go West, young man
Western Slope Conference has trio of strong teams in Class 1A playoffs
If recent history means anything, look for a 1A Western Slope Conference team to make a deep run in the Class 1A football state playoffs, which begin Saturday.
Hotchkiss has reached the state semifinals three years in a row before bowing out, and it was a 1A WSC team that ended the Bulldogs’ run. Cedaredge edged Hotchkiss 16-12, then went on to win the first state title in its football program’s history.
Both are back in the 16-team playoff field, but neither garnered the conference championship en route to the postseason. That honor belonged to Paonia, which cranked up its defense down the stretch and closed the regular season with shutouts of Hotchkiss and Cedaredge, 21-0 and 40-0, respectively.
Paonia (8-1) earned the fourth seed in 1A and a home game against Colorado Springs Christian.
Hotchkiss (7-2) drew the sixth seed and a home game against Burlington, a program two years removed from winning consecutive 1A state titles.
Cedaredge (6-3) is seeded 12th and goes on the road to Monte Vista.
Eagles defense takes flight
First-year Paonia coach Brent McRae said the Eagles’ defense has been impressive of late because the coaches finally got players in the right spots.
“In the first four-five weeks we were moving people around,” he said. “We got the pieces where they needed to be finally, and everything started clicking.”
McRae said Paonia’s defense now has speed in all positions, including the line, and it can put a couple of 200-pounders at defensive tackle. He also likes his linebacking corps, led by juniors Logan Schopp and Joel Simianer.
The defense’s challenge will be to play smart because Colorado Springs Christian’s offense will throw everything and the kitchen sink at it. Whether it’s a pro set, a spread, the wildcat or shifting from a spread to double-tight-end formation, the Lions never take a snap under center, and they run lots of motion and love the read-option.
“They try to make you think,” McRae said.
The primary weapon for the Lions is senior TJ Stockton, who will line up almost anywhere: running back, quarterback, tight end and wide receiver.
Simply put, “He goes,” McRae said.
Paonia figures to make Colorado Springs Christian adjust on defense, too. McRae said the Lions’ base defense is a 5-2, but no one plays a 5-2 against the Eagles’ offense. He’s guessing Paonia will face a 6-2.
The Lions challenge will be to slow down sophomore quarterback/running back Taylor Walters, who has surpassed 1,500 yards rushing and thrown for nearly 500 yards.
“He’s explosive, and he’s hard to tackle,” McRae said, adding Walters is humble and credits the Eagles’ line for his success.
McRae likes to go with double tight ends, Schopp and Simianer, sandwiching tackles Dylan Geisler and Josh Kimball, guards Chase Park and Tony Darling and center Drewe Lee.
“Our O-line, they’re tough, tough, they’re good,” McRae said.
Both lines will be key for a Paonia victory Saturday.
“We have to control the line of scrimmage and dominate up front. That’s where it starts,” McRae said. “And we have to take care of the football, no turnovers. It’s the same philosophy we’ve had all season.”
‘dogs see selves in Cougars
Hotchkiss coach Zac Lemon means it when he says Burlington is a mirror image of the Bulldogs. The Cougars run the same offense and defense, split-back veer and 3-3 stack, as Hotchkiss.
“They’re a balanced running attack, can run either direction, and you have to be balanced sideline to sideline and know your responsibilities (to stop them),” Lemon said.
Senior Eloy Sandoval has 1,039 yards rushing, and junior Martin Torres isn’t far behind with 986 yards. The Cougars don’t pass much, but Lemon said Burlington quarterback Chance Carlin is “very effective.”
“We know they’re going to do what they do well,” Lemon said. “They’re so consistent top to bottom, front to back.”
The Bulldogs will have to get past Burlington without their starting quarterback, Devan Rupe, whom Lemon said is out for the rest of the season with a concussion. Taking his place is senior Tanner Bizer, who had experience off and on at quarterback at the lower levels.
“He’s athletic enough to make it happen,” Lemon said of Bizer’s switch to quarterback.
Bizer started the regular-season finale, a 28-0 win over Meeker, and he completed 11 of 20 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. He added 31 yards rushing on seven attempts.
The Bulldogs get several running backs frequent carries, but Alex Smith got fed the ball the most, rushing for 914 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Bruins face familiar foe
Cedaredge enters the game on a low note, getting shut out by Paonia, and it faces a program that no doubt has revenge on its mind. The Bruins beat Monte Vista 18-0 in the second round of last year’s playoffs.
Like the Bruins, though, Monte Vista was shut out, 14-0, in a regular-season finale against its conference’s champion.
Defense appears to be the Pirates’ forte, as they shut out three opponents and surrendered only 28 points in the final five games of the season.
“They’re scrappy on defense. They really get after it,” Cedaredge coach Brandon Milholland said. “Their linebackers play downhill and are very aggressive.”
The Pirates are all about team on offense, spreading the ball around so much and striking such a balance between the run and the pass, no runners or receivers have more than 500 yards.
Again, Milholland used the word scrappy to describe the Pirates, and he added, “They play hard. They don’t have one player who stands out. They get it done as a team.”
Milholland is more concerned about the effort by his team than the opponent. The Paonia loss was disappointing because of the final score and because the Bruins had a chance to create a three-way tie atop the conference with a win.
“I just want to see them play with passion and heart,” Milholland said. “Football is an emotional game. ... I want to see us get after it and fly to the ball.”