Western Slope Conference loaded with talent
Four teams from the Class 1A Western Slope Conference made the state playoffs last season and another team narrowly missed the cut.
Meeker, Paonia and Cedaredge added yet another season to their perennial playoff presence, and a young Grand Valley team squeaked into the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Olathe just missed the playoffs and Hotchkiss, another young team, started the season 3-1 before dropping five straight conference games, two by seven points or fewer.
If it sounds like it’s a stacked conference, that’s because it is. And it’s wide open in 2017.
The Cowboys bring back quarterback Logan Hughes and running back Doak Mantle, one season after advancing the Class 1A state title game. Meeker fell to Strasburg, its only loss of the season, but the experience under center and in the backfield will be an asset for the Cowboys.
Meeker coach Shane Phelan said Hughes is progressing.
“Logan’s gotten better each year,” Phelan said. “He’s bigger and faster this year and we’re excited to see what he can do.”
Hughes and Mantle accounted for most of Meeker’s rushing yardage last season, but the Cowboys lost their top three receivers. Trapper Merrifield will take on a larger role after catching three passes for 24 yards and two touchdowns last season.
The Cowboys also had plenty of turnover along its lines, but Hughes, Mantle and Merrifield are all in the defensive backfield and return as some of the team’s top tacklers.
The Eagles saw former coach Brent McRae depart for Mountain Vista after four successful seasons. Blaine Escher, an assistant on Paonia’s staff, was promoted to top spot. The 24-year-old is a Paonia High School graduate who played college football at the University of Northern Colorado. Besides a change at the head coach spot, not much else has changed for the Eagles.
They’re still big at every position and play the same bruising brand of football.
“We’re a big running team,” Escher said. “We don’t have the cannon to throw it 60 yards down the field or the 4.4-type (speed) receivers, but we have some very good athletes out there. We’ll be running the ball quite a bit. We have some power backs and some speed backs and we’re going to mix it up as much as we can.”
Among Paonia’s top returners is Jaden Miller, who had 144 carries for 977 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He added four catches for 97 yards and one touchdown.
After three straight appearances in the 1A title game, the Eagles were ousted in the semifinals in 2016.
In practice, Miller took reps at quarterback, running back and fullback. The senior said a tradition of winning across multiple sports gives the Eagles confidence.
“It’s definitely important because we all know what it’s like to be in the big show,” Miller said. “We know what it takes to get there.”
The Bruins lost several key players to graduation, but they return a nice core of skill position players. The trick is getting them in the right spots.
After plenty of shuffling last season, Pedro Madaleno will start at running back and Jared Reynolds at quarterback. Over the past two seasons, both had taken reps at quarterback, but Cedaredge coach Brandon Milholland settled on Reynolds under center.
It’s not that Reynolds is necessarily the better player — Milholland said both are great athletes — it’s about getting both on the field at the same time.
“It’s just putting kids in the best position to be successful,” Milholland said. “Pedro is a tough, power-running type kid. You look at the team, you have to make some of those decisions, because with schools this size it’s not always the next man up. Jared is solid at the position and will make the play. He scrambles well and can make plays with his arm. We just have a lot of great athletes on the field.”
Cardinals quarterback Jeff Holbrook has as much experience as any quarterback in the conference, running Grand Valley’s spread attack for the past two seasons. Last year, he compiled 1,123 yards with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He added 11 touchdowns on the ground, rushing for 784 yards on 90 carries in the process, all team highs. He averaged 8.7 yards per carry.
Holbrook has continued his development as a dual-threat quarterback, said Grand Valley coach Tim Lenard.
“He’s improved a lot,” Lenard said. “He’s still got a lot of room left to go, but we’re happy with his progress and he should continue to improve. He’s getting better at making decisions and that’ll be an asset for us this season.”
The Cardinals return most of their lineup, including their top six rushers and three of their top four tacklers from last season. They also bring back a group of receivers who accounted for 54 of the team’s 55 receptions last year.
It’s been several years since Olathe has been in the postseason and the Pirates missed the 2016 Class 1A playoffs by a mathematical whisker.
This year, the Pirates hope it’s their year.
Olathe gained some valuable experience last year with nine sophomores seeing plenty of playing time by the end of the season.
Coach Ryan Corn said the Pirates have a good core of returners with Dillon Nelson at quarterback, Cesar Suarez at running back and lineman Nick Bryant.
Also back is junior Anthony Garcia at tight end. He’s also the kicker and Corn said he has a “college prospect leg.”
“We have a ton of experience,” Corn said. “It comes down to an overall family unity with this group. They’ve worked hard this summer, our weight-room attendance was huge, and we had 96 percent attendance to our camp.”
The Pirates won state 2A titles in 2008 and 2010, and Corn said that tradition always serves as motivation to the players.
“We’ve always had that expectation and they know that. We’re always hoping to make another run. But that only comes with hard work, and these kids are working hard and having fun.”
The senior-laden Bulldogs are looking to rebound from a tough-luck season. They bring back 10 starters from 2016 and nine seniors will be on each side of the ball, which means less of a learning curve early in the season.
Hotchkiss coach Curtis Hintz said early practices have been encouraging.
“I think year two in the system, as well as being experienced from these boys playing since their sophomore year, that all helps a ton,” Hintz said. “Last year, a bunch of them went from starting on one side of the ball to starting on both sides of the ball and I think that’s helped us out a lot.”
Hotchkiss returns its top three receivers from last season, Devin Curtis, Braxton Trujillo and Colton Peebles. Peebles and Curtis were also the team’s top tacklers, giving the defense some reinforcement.
Peebles said the added experience will aid the Bulldogs.
“There’s more leadership on the field, so the young guys are able to soak up the knowledge a little bit faster now that they have more experience,” he said. “It’s great for competition with all the seniors we have. You’re going senior against senior, so the competition is definitely a lot better, too.”