Paonia puts emphasis on passing game

The 2008 season was a good way for Craig Cerise to begin his tenure as head football coach at Paonia High School.

The Eagles went 6-4 and nearly upset Lyons in the first round of the Class 1A playoffs before losing 18-17.

Paonia’s success was because of its high-powered running game, featuring Lukas Wiggins, Jordan Van Vleet and Josh Burns. The three seniors combined for more than 1,800 yards and 23 touchdowns.

On any high school team, the pieces can, and usually do, change from year to year. Wiggins, Van Vleet and Burns are all gone, as is the I-formation Eagles had been running offensively.

In its place will be a spread offense led by quarterback Casey Gillenwater. The junior will attempt to keep building the success the Eagles had last year.

“Our strengths are different this year,” Cerise said. “We are trying to emphasize our strengths and spread it out a little more.”

Gillenwater took over as the starting quarterback midway through the season last year, and helped the Eagles string together a four-game winning streak to end the regular season. The player Gillenwater replaced, Taylor Bradford, looks to be his main target at receiver this year.

“We have a lot more athleticism this year,” Cerise said. “It’s looking good so far. We did well at the 7-on-7 camps we’ve been to.”

The switch in offense shouldn’t be difficult for the Eagles, who ran some formations out of the spread last year.

“Some of what we’re doing is brand-new, but most of it we put in last season,” Cerise said.

Gillenwater will also have dangerous targets in senior Curtis Bushta and junior Blaine Escher. Cerise said both players had good summers.

Defensively, Paonia will be switching from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-5 base. One of reasons for the switch is because Cerise ran the 3-5 when he was an assistant coach at Delta, and is confident with it.

“I feel more comfortable in the 3-5,” Cerise said. “Plus, looking at our schedule and how many teams are running the spread offense, this defense is a better fit.”

Justin Smith, a 6-foot-2 senior, is one of the key players defensively for the Eagles at middle linebacker. Nose guard KC Martin will also be an impact player.

Cerise has high expectations for this season. The second-year coach said he would like to build on the Eagles’ strong 2008 finish.

“I don’t think anyone expected us to get to the playoffs last year,” Cerise said. “So we are going to feed off of that, and I expect us to win our league and hopefully make it to the second round.”

Defending Class 1A Western Slope Conference champion Hotchkiss lost its 2,000 yard rusher, Ethan Coe, which leads Cerise to expect a wide-open race for the conference title.

“Everyone lost a lot,” Cerise said. “I think we’ll be better than last year, and the kids are excited.”


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