Eagles soaring again
Austin's preseason goal moving closer for Paonia
PAONIA — In the small mountain town of Paonia, where quaint shops line its main street, traditions run as deep as the coal veins in the mines to the northeast.
High school sports are part of those proud traditions. The trophy case is overflowing with gold and silver keepsakes earned by current and former athletic teams.
But in a town and region where hard work is part of its fabric, and farming, coal mining and other professions as rugged as the Elk Mountain Range that loom to the east, one would expect to see more football trophies.
This season, the Eagles are 10-1 and play in the Class 1A semifinals today. Their quest is to add a golden football trophy to the cluttered array of wrestling, baseball, volleyball, girls basketball, cross country and other trophies residing behind glass at the high school.
The highly successful wrestling team has won three state titles in the past four years and will be an overwhelming favorite to win it again this year. There are 13 wrestlers on the football team.
Junior linebacker and fullback Gunnar Chesnik is one.
“Usually, I just play football to stay in shape for wrestling,” he said with a laugh. “But this year it’s different. This is fun. I think it’s cool that all our sports are good.”
No one was sure what Paonia could do on the football field this season. There’s always optimism, but after several mediocre seasons, pessimism has a way of working its way into the cracks of disappointment.
Senior tailback Will Austin wanted his final year on the football field to be special. He wanted to win. Maybe as a senior, there was a layer of desperation; it was his final shot at football success.
As the season started, first-year head coach Brent McRae wanted to know what the team hoped to achieve.
Austin had only one answer.
“Coach asked us what were some of our goals, and I said to win a state championship,” Austin said. “I thought why not? That should be everybody’s goal.”
He said the team agreed but there were still pockets of pessimism.
Chiseling away doubt took wins over inferior competition. Looming at the end of the regular season were games with perennial Western Slope Conference powers Hotchkiss and Cedaredge, last year’s state champ.
That’s when the Eagles really thought they had a pretty special team.
“When we started blanking people like Hotchkiss and Cedaredge, I really thought we had a chance,” Chesnik said.
The 21-0 victory over Hotchkiss and 40-0 rout over Cedaredge got everyone’s attention.
Austin’s goal was now everyone’s goal.
Austin has rushed for more than 1,200 yards and with a big powerful offensive line, and with Chesnik providing lead blocks, the Eagles’ running game has mangled opposing defenses throughout the season.
After a third-week loss to Centauri, the Eagles got right back on track, scoring two wins by a combined score of 95-6.
As the season neared the midway point, McRae made a lineup change that took the team from good to great.
McRae moved sophomore Taylor Walters from tailback to quarterback. With that physical offensive line opening holes like a swiss cheese factory, it gave the Eagles’ one of the most potent 1-2 punches in the state.
Walters, a 6-foot-3, 170-pound sophomore, has rushed for more than 1,700 yards. That deserves an exclamation point. The fact that he’s a sophomore warrants a couple of extra exclamation points.
“I thought I would stay at tailback the whole year,” Walters said, smiling. “I thought I might be pretty good, I worked really hard and stepped up this year.”
The hard-working work ethic that is molding Walters as an athlete undoubtably comes from his dad, Jeff Walters, who works at one of the coal mines outside town and played sports for Paonia High when he was a youngster.
After the recent layoffs at one of the coal mines, Taylor said his dad still has a job.
But any time an industry like coal mining sees layoffs, there’s a cloud of uncertainty that drifts over the region.
Taylor said the football team has been a welcome distraction for many coal mining families in the area. There are more than football players who have fathers working in the mines.
Austin, a lean, broad-shouldered runner, said he isn’t surprised at how quickly Walters has developed as a football player.
“I saw him as a freshman and he’s always been a great athlete,” he said.
Chesnik saw Walters play as a sixth-grader and the team went undefeated.
“I always knew he was a real good football player but I didn’t think he’d come on like he has this year,” he said.
Chesnik is the third runner in the sophomore-junior-senior backfield that has rushed for 3,189 yards. He’s hammered out 334 yards but he knows his main job is to help open those holes for Walters and Austin. But once in awhile …
“Most of the time I’m blocking but whenever we need four yards, they give it to me,” he said with a chuckle.
As the season progressed, Walters continued to impress and McRae knew he had to make the change to better utilize both Walters and Austin’s running abilities.
“We knew he was an athlete,” McRae said about Walters. “We just weren’t sure what we were going to do with him.”
Austin, Chesnik, Joel Simianer, Josh Altman, Ty Coats and Tony Darling all placed at last year’s state wrestling tournament. They have now helped bring success to the football team.
The town and school has embraced the football team like it does the wrestling team and other successful Paonia teams.
As a young guy playing quarterback, Walters said his teammates have helped him out a lot.
“Sometimes if I mess up in a game I get a little down but they lift me up. They have my back,” he said.
Way back in August when Austin bravely said the team’s goal should be to win a state championship, the Eagles had no idea if that was possible. Now they have each others’ backs and the backing of the school and the town.
The Eagles are one win away from playing for the Class 1A title. They know it won’t be easy, but in a town that holds tight to its blue-collar work ethic, these players know that nothing worthwhile comes easy.
Austin grins when he thinks back to his preseason proclamation. As the wins started piling up, he then believed even more that they had a chance.
“I started thinking that we could go places,” Austin said. “I just wasn’t sure how far.”