Too much speed
Meeker can't contain Indians' quickness in state title-game loss
MEEKER — Midway through the fourth quarter Saturday afternoon, Meeker High School quarterback Logan Hughes got up from a hit in obvious discomfort.
He was helped up, limped for a few steps and was tugged to the sideline by Meeker coach Shane Phelan. One play later, Hughes limped back to the huddle and ran the final offensive play of the Cowboys’ season as Strasburg chewed up the clock for a 34-14 victory in the Class 1A football state championship game at Starbuck Stadium.
Hughes limped through handshakes, limped as he helped a group of players accept the second-place trophy and limped to a pair of spots where coaches gave postgame speeches. Hughes didn’t fall and only once took a knee. Then he limped off the field.
Phelan said Hughes’ toughness — as a leader at quarterback — is just a reflection of the entire team. One player left the field with a bloody gash on his forehead, another with a cut on his arm, several had tape that had broken away from reinforced ankles and wrists.
“It’s not just Logan,” Phelan said. “We’ve got a bunch of tough, hard-nosed guys. I’ve been saying it all year. They just battle and battle and battle and battle, and they take pride in working hard. Little aches and pains aren’t going to keep them out. They feel like they have to be out there for their teammates and it’s special to see it like that.”
The top-seeded Cowboys could have easily given up after a 34-point offensive outburst from the No. 2 Indians in the first half.
Meeker scored on its opening drive, with Hughes scrambling for a 14-yard touchdown for an 8-0 lead. But Strasburg responded almost immediately, with Hunter Bergstrom breaking off a 26-yard touchdown run to end a four-play series.
The Cowboys’ struggles — both on offense and defense — began after each team’s first drive as the Indians ripped off 27 more points before allowing another touchdown.
On offense, Meeker couldn’t maintain possession. After Strasburg’s second kickoff, Hughes threw the first of four interceptions.
On defense, the Cowboys struggled with the Indians’ speed along the edges, with Bergstrom, Jeremy Ladd and Chase Starman rushing for huge chunks of yardage. Each averaged 10 or more yards per carry and quarterback Conner Martin — who finished with two touchdowns on the ground and one through the air — orchestrated the offense.
Strasburg coach Jeff Giger said Martin, a senior, makes numerous heads-up plays that he’s not accustomed to seeing high school players make. In the title game, Martin cut short two designed running plays that started to fall apart and kept the ball for an intermediate gain on the ground. He extended plays with his feet, both by scrambling for yardage and evading the rush before making a throw.
Martin said the entire game was a thrill.
“It’s unbelievable,” Martin said. “We’ve been talking about winning a state championship for four years and since Coach got here that’s all he’s preached. To finally do it on my last game is unbelievable.”
The Indians had 308 yards of offense in the first half with five touchdowns, three from 20 or more yards out and three on fourth down. On both counts, that was thanks to a group of talented running backs who streaked up and down the sidelines.
“I think everybody knows we have that speed,” Giger said. “But until you see it, and until they have to stop it, I think it can catch other teams off guard. For us, it really opens up everything because you almost have to cheat or go a little faster to get out there and that allows us to do some different things.”
Phelan said Strasburg’s speed was definitely a challenge.
“That’s a good Strasburg bunch. We struggled with their speed a little bit — more than a little bit, honestly,” Phelan said with a chuckle. “Those are some good football players.”
Still, after all that — a 26-point deficit, multiple costly turnovers and an Indians’ offense that ran big play after big play — Meeker changed the complexion of the game in the second half.
The Cowboys shut out their opponents after halftime, allowed only 86 yards of offense, and came up with three fumble recoveries and added a scoring drive to start the third quarter. Meeker was a red-zone interception away from making it a two-score game before the start of the fourth quarter.
Hughes led the way with his power running and had a team-high 113 yards rushing on 14 bruising carries.
But the same Strasburg athletes who made big plays on offense also led a dominating secondary. Hughes completed 13 of 36 passes for 108 yards, his lowest total since a September blowout victory.
Ladd and Starman each had an interception, and linebacker Jon Still reeled in two picks on slant routes when he dropped into zone coverage.
For the past five years, the Class 1A state championship has gone either to or through a team from the Western Slope Conference. Cedaredge won in 2012 and Paonia won in 2013-14, and lost in 2015.
This season, Strasburg beat a WSC team in each round, topping Grand Valley, Cedaredge, Paonia and Meeker to take home the trophy.
Giger said beating the top conference in the classification was what he was most impressed with. He said Meeker and Paonia are two of the best teams in the classification and added that the later rounds — against the Cowboys and Eagles — is when Strasburg played its best football.
The coach said the victory, which ended a 26-year playoff drought for the small community that sits just east of Aurora, didn’t feel real at first.
“Honestly, right now, I think I’m numb,” Giger said. “Maybe it will sink in later when we’re at home. Obviously, our community, the support we receive is unbelievable. Hopefully when we’re around that it will sink in a little bit.”
Meeker’s state championship slump continues, with the Cowboys falling to 0-7 in state championship games. Prior to Saturday’s game, Meeker’s last appearance in a championship was 1996.
“When you’re around a groups of kids like this who are just so hard-nosed and workmanlike, it rubs off,” Phelan said. “It can’t help but rub off on those younger guys. You learn something from those guys and those guys learned it from other Meeker teams in the past. A big part of being on this field today has to do with the 80-some Meeker teams who were here in the past. There’s a good, rich tradition of hard-nosed kids fighting every play. That’ll get you a long ways in football.”
Other playoff action
The Class 4A championship will feature No. 3 Pine Creek against No. 5 Broomfield next week.
Chatfield, which edged Fruita Monument 36-28 in the quarterfinals, lost to Pine Creek 28-14. Broomfield was a 25-13 winner over Windsor.
In Class 3A, Pueblo East, the two-time defending state champion, will be back in the title game after a 28-21 win over Mead in Longmont. Mead earned a late victory over Palisade last week.
The title game will feature No. 1 versus No. 2 after No. 1 Discovery Canyon defeated Silver Creek 17-7 in the other semifinal game.
In Class 2A, No. 1 La Junta got a 17-10 win over Kent Denver to win the title. Delta lost to Kent Denver 21-14 last week.
In Class 5A, it will No. 1 Pomona against No. 3 Valor Christian in the state title game next week.
Pomona cruised to 24-7 win over Regis Jesuit, and Valor Christian beat Cherry Creek 10-7 on a last-second field goal.
The title game will be a rematch of last year’s finals, where Valor Christian defeated Pomona 29-26.