Led by senior QB Coats, Paonia avenges only loss, beats Centauri to win 1A state title
PAONIA — Two words on Saturday summed up the season for the high-energy Paonia High School football team and its 28-year-old coach, Brent McRae.
“Gold ball, man,” said McRae, the Eagles’ first-year coach. “Gold ball. Gold ball. That’s all there is.”
It took an offensive formation the Eagles hadn’t used in weeks and the reemergence of long-absent senior quarterback Ty Coats, but Paonia hung on to beat Centauri 32-24 to win the Class 1A state championship at Paonia Town Park Field.
It is the first state title for Paonia since 1959, when the Eagles topped Windsor 7-0 for the Class A championship.
The win also avenged Paonia’s 27-14 loss to Centauri on Sept. 14.
Leading 20-12 at halftime, the Eagles moved Taylor Walters from quarterback to running back and dusted off the Maryland formation, similar to a power I-formation, but with three backs directly behind the quarterback.
In the second half, Paonia marched up and down the field with Coats at quarterback, Gunnar Chesnik at fullback and Walters and Will Austin at running back. The four combined to rush for 232 yards, with Walters and Austin each topping 100 yards.
“Anyone could have run through those holes,” McRae said. “It is really a credit to our offensive line and an all-around team effort. Everyone did awesome. The coaches did awesome.”
A clutch third-down conversion, where Coats found Chesnik for a 16-yard completion, led to the eventual game-winning score for Paonia. Walters, back at quarterback, found Logan Schopp on a 29-yard touchdown pass.
“I didn’t play much my senior year,” Coats said. “But I got my chance today and we won the game. Nothing else matters to me. I’m glad I got the opportunity.”
McRae went to his senior when the situation called for the different offensive set.
“Ty was our quarterback for the Maryland package and Taylor was quarterback for another package and (Coats) just didn’t get as many snaps,” McRae said. “That’s just the way things went. He kept fighting, kept plugging along, and he came up big when we needed him to today.”
Walters threw for two scores and added another on the ground, twice throwing the ball over Centauri’s safeties, who struggled to turn and find the ball.
His 37-yard touchdown pass with less than one minute left in the first half dropped into a wide-open Josh Altman’s hands with the safety face-down in the mud.
“Josh, the guy who caught the pass, told Coach that he’d been burning his guy over and over again,” Walters said. “We set up a (play-action pass) and I just hit him on the run. It was pretty much Coach and Altman that set up the play. They knew all along.”
The sophomore shifted back to quarterback late in the third quarter and took the majority of snaps when ball control was key.
He finished with 66 yards passing and added 118 yards on the ground.
Add to that two interceptions by Walters, including one on a bubble screen that he returned 52 yards for a touchdown, and the sophomore was again the spark for his team.
“We have different guys out there (in the secondary),” McRae said. “We have guys in the right spot and they’re flying around. We’re just more disciplined now and I think that’s the main thing.”
Walters was a big-play machine for the Eagles, including his 58-yard rushing touchdown and four key pass breakups.
The pass defense fared better against Centauri quarterback K.C. Jarvies this time around despite Jarvies throwing for 286 yards on 20-of-42 passing, with four touchdowns. It was the three interceptions and good coverage on bubble screens that turned the tide for Paonia defensively.
Walters said the secondary’s ability to swarm allowed the Eagles to limit the damage Jarvies could do.
“Our secondary is really good and we’ve improved a lot since the first time we played them,” Walters said. “Like our ability to get to the ball and break to it, and to get up and contest at the ball. People were swarming them. We played up (closer to receivers) a lot more and weren’t backed up expecting them to go deep. We pressed up and we were trying to limit what they could do on the screens.”
The linebacking corps, completely swapped out since the first game against Centauri, limited the Falcons to only 84 yards rushing.
Power back Jareb Aziz averaged a little more than two yards a carry and was stuffed near the line of scrimmage on every rush.
Speed back Jason Buhr ran for 47 yards on 16 carries but did his damage in the passing game, catching six passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns.
No Centauri player averaged more than three yards per carry. Schopp, a linebacker, said the Eagles stopped the Falcons’ rushing attack with discipline despite some early miscues.
“We had some miscommunication early where guys struggled in coverage, but other than that, we had to stay calm and make sure we stayed on our assignments,” he said.
“We had to play fast and aggressive and that’s all there is to it. (Buhr) is fast and we had to make sure there was pursuit on him so we could limit what he could do.”
The Eagles’ state championship is the second in a row for a Class 1A Western Slope Conference team, following Cedaredge’s 2012 title.
With a first-year coach and a relatively young team, McRae said the championship was unexpected, but a credit to Western Slope football.
“It’s never expected, but I don’t know,” McRae said. “You play the games and what happens, happens. You’re just along for the ride. It’s hard to put into words what this feels like.”