PRIMED FOR A REPEAT
Paonia aims to live up to lofty expectations after winning Class 1A state championship
Brent McRae doesn’t pace the sideline, he bounds. He hoots and hollers and forcibly pumps his fist whenever Paonia scores a touchdown.
He’s always moving, always thinking.
So, it comes as no surprise that less than a year removed from securing the Eagles’ first state football championship since 1959 with a 32-24 win over Centauri in the Class 1A title game, McRae already is thinking of ways to improve upon the Eagles’ already lofty expectations.
“We lost a fumble in every single game last season,” McRae said. “We need to clean up our turnovers.
“We lost a big piece in (lineman and kicker) Tony Darling when he graduated, and we need to improve our leadership this season.
“Our goals are set a little higher, and we need better execution.”
But if they’re able to clean up the small things, it’s natural to think the Eagles are a favorite to win this year’s 1A championship. In the first preseason poll from CHSAANow.com, Paonia is ranked No. 1.
“It’s hard to tell at this point because we play in such a competitive league,” McRae said. “Obviously we’d like to get back to where we were last year, but that’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take commitment and hard work from everyone.”
Although McRae said it’s going to be a battle to repeat as the state champ, it certainly helps to have one of the top quarterbacks in Class 1A returning.
Taylor Walters, Paonia’s junior quarterback, led Class 1A with 1,946 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns on the ground in 2013. It was best rushing performance by any player outside of Class 5A, and the best of any quarterback in the state.
Walters also tossed 11 touchdowns, two in the state championship game.
Although Walters put up gaudy numbers, McRae said he isn’t set with Walters playing quarterback, saying there’s potential for Walters to play any number of positions.
So, Walters has the stats, the speed and versatility, and he’s an all-around athlete who excels in basketball and track and field, too.
McRae added Walters is extremely competitive and stands out in the intangibles.
“He makes me look pretty good as a coach,” McRae said of Walters. “He doesn’t always look pretty doing it, but he has it. Whatever it is, he has it.
“He’s not the best athlete in the state or anything, and I’d go as far as saying he isn’t even the best athlete on our team. But he’s the biggest competitor, and he’s got those intangibles that coaches drool over.”
The addition of three-time wrestling state champion Jesse Reed won’t hurt, either.
After carrying the ball 65 times for 291 yards in 2012, Reed opted to focus on wrestling, so he could enter the wrestling season healthy for the first time in his high school career. Reed ran cross country instead of playing football in 2013.
He’s back for his senior year, and McRae said Reed will be a pivotal part of the offense.
“Jesse has great quickness, and he’s super competitive, obviously, being a three-time state champion in wrestling,” McRae said. “He’ll help us when we can get the ball into space and let him do his thing. He’s a great tackler — probably got that from wrestling, too — and he’s a good addition on both sides of the ball.”
Although the Eagles lost running back Will Austin, they do return a pair of tight ends who were not only outstanding blockers, but regularly factored in as pass catchers. The “twin 80s” — No. 85 Logan Schopp and No. 81 Joel Simianer — both return as big targets with solid hands for Walters. Schopp was the team’s leading receiver, hauling in 19 catches for 365 yards, nearly 20 yards per catch. Simianer was second, pulling down 13 catches for 309 yards and averaging more than 23 yards per catch. Of his 13 catches, eight were for touchdowns.
Paonia will also return big chunks of a defense that allowed only 30 points in five 1A Western Slope Conference games. Linebackers Gunnar Chesnik, Simianer, and Schopp all seniors, will patrol the second level. The trio led the Eagles in tackles last season.
Walters, who played at safety or linebacker last year, depending on where the team needed him, will shift to linebacker full-time, McRae said.
Senior Josh Altman returns as a starter in the secondary, and Reed adds another defensive back with varsity experience.
Varsity newcomer Jeremiah Hillman also will play a big role in the secondary. McRae said the 6-foot-3, 185-pound junior is “the fastest guy on the team.”
McRae admitted Paonia is “probably the favorite on paper” in the 1A WSC, he said the conference is flush with talent.
“There’s so many talented players in this league, and we’ve had the last two state champions,” McRae said, referring to Cedaredge’s state title in 2012. “We’re going to have to work for everything we get.”