Jalen Mergerson highlightsWatch the Eaglecrest quarterback in action earlier this season against Grandview.
For a program that had endured nine losing seasons in 10 years, an undefeated regular season in 2016 launched the Eaglecrest (Centennial)
football team back into the mix of the Class 5A elite.
So when Regis Jesuit (Aurora) eliminated the Raptors in the second round of the state playoffs, it left a bitter taste of disappointment and a feeling of unfinished business. But it also helped Eaglecrest realize that even better days were still ahead.
The work that began last fall and continued through the offseason and into the 2017 campaign has paid dividends in a trip to the 5A state championship game Saturday afternoon against Pomona (Arvada)
"I think we kind of got caught up in the moment of being undefeated," Raptors coach Mike Schmitt said of last season. "As coaches it made us identify (this year) what we need to do early. We tried to hold back and grow a little each week. We changed how we work out during the week and how we condition them, to try and get us to peak at the right time instead of getting caught up in wins and losses."
Second-seeded Eaglecrest (13-0) takes on the No. 4 Panthers at 2:30 p.m. at Mile High Stadium in Denver. It's the Raptors' first trip to the title game since winning it all in 1993.
"We saw how the seniors were last year. We didn't want that to happen to us," Raptors senior
told Jeffco Public Schools Communications Specialist Dennis Pleuss after a 32-31 double overtime victory against Columbine in the state semifinals. We felt like that loss was on us (underclassmen) because we didn't pull our weight. We had to step up as seniors and make big plays in big situations."
Mergerson tossed two touchdowns in the victory over Columbine and connected with Theryne Sandoval - Jimenez
on the winning 2-point conversion. Schmitt said the quarterback put in the time in the offseason, improving his top-end speed as well as developing into a better passer.
"His growth as a passer and his knowledge of the game has (driven) the team," Schmitt said. "Not just the offense, but the team in general. He's like having another coach on the field."
Pomona (11-2) defeated Grandview (Aurora) 42-20 in the other semifinal to advance to its third consecutive state championship. The Panthers lost to Valor Christian (Highlands Ranch) in each of the two previous years and haven't won a championship since claiming the 4A crown in 1988.
"I thought that the second after the buzzer sounded at Mile High last year," Panthers senior quarterback Ryan Marquez
said to Pleuss on Saturday after getting back to a third consecutive title game. "I knew we could do it. I trusted my teammates and they made it happen. I'm so proud of this team and coaches on getting us to the state championship game again."Max Borghi
rushed for 211 yards and three touchdowns in the victory over the Wolves and Marquez threw for 275 yards and two more scores. Borghi has 26 total touchdowns this season and Marquez has tossed 22 scores of his own – 15 of which have gone to junior Billy Pospisil
Schmitt admitted that Pomona has an edge in having been in this spot the past two years, but the Raptors are just as hungry to end their own title drought.
"For the coaches, it's just time to get all the logistics set up. For the kids, it's another football game, but they get to play at a venue that's pretty unique for them," he said. "But for our boys, it really is about trying to win a state championship."MaxPreps Colorado state football bracketsClass 4A
No. 1 Pine Creek (Colorado Springs) vs. No. 6 Pueblo South, 11 a.m., Saturday, Mile High Stadium
Playing for a state championship has become a defining characteristic of Pine Creek's program in recent years.
When the Eagles take the field at Mile High Stadium on Saturday morning for the 4A title game, it will mark the fifth time in seven years that Pine Creek has played for a championship.
For Pueblo South, the Eagles' opponent, the trip to Denver is a new experience. The Colts are making their first appearance in the title game, but don't expect them to be overwhelmed.
"I don't think you can ever replicate playing in an NFL stadium. You don't get many opportunities to play in these kind of venues," Pueblo South coach Ryan Goddard said. "But we played our semifinal game in front of almost 6,000 people last week, and we play a rivalry game in the middle of the season with over 12,000 people.
"That's something that's really special about Pueblo and the community and how they support us. I think our kids will respond to the big stage and hopefully we'll shine."
The Colts (12-1) bring an explosive offense that features multiple weapons into Mile High against a Pine Creek (12-1) defense that has four shutouts over the past six games.
"It you look at our offense there are just so many skill guys that are just so talented. We've got a really good collection of skill players and those guys have worked tremendously hard to make sure they are in that position," Goddard said. "We've got five guys on offense where any single one of them can do damage at any point in the game."
Senior Zach Cozzolino
has thrown for 3,146 yards and 46 touchdowns. Seniors Marcell Barbee
(64 catches, 1,191 yards and 22 touchdowns) and Thomas Pannunzio
(39-823-13) have been the biggest beneficiaries, but Jesse Anzar
and Jeremy Cody
have a combined 11 scores as well. Running back Steve Brock
has 1,724 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Pine Creek's David Moore III
has rushed for 1,787 yards and 22 touchdowns, and senior JC Coulter
has 17 touchdown passes. But it's the Eagles' defense that has been the biggest hurdle for opposing teams, with 17.5 sacks and 20 turnovers. Pine Creek has allowed only 80 points in 13 games and yielded only one touchdown in three playoff games.
"In the last playoff game-and-a-half, teams have kind of held us down a little bit," Goddard said. "We've got to find ways to get better. We're playing a really good defense and a really good football team."Class 3A
No. 2 Palmer Ridge (Monument) vs. No. 5 Erie, 1 p.m., Saturday, Air Force Academy
Like Pueblo South, Palmer Ridge brings a high-powered passing attack into its first championship game.
Erie, on the other hand, relies on a punishing ground game that has the Tigers playing for their first title since 1997.
With two very different styles of play, it may very well come down to which defense rises to the challenge when Palmer Ridge (13-0) and Erie (11-2) tangle Saturday at Falcon Stadium.
The Bears dispatched a Western Slope League power for the second consecutive week last Saturday, defeating Palisade 28-14 in the semifinals. Sophomore Raef Ruel
rushed for 169 yards and three touchdowns, and junior quarterback Ty Evans
threw for 108 yards and no touchdowns.
That was a rarity for a signal-caller who has 3,318 yards on the season and 39 touchdown passes. But Ruel has had a knack for finding the end zone this fall, rushing for 21 scores. The Bears have sacked opposing quarterback 44 times, led by senior Zach Hester
's 14.5 takedowns.
After a pair of come-from-behind victories over three-time defending state champion Pueblo East and Durango, Erie downed Longmont 31-14 in the semifinals. Junior Noah Roper
rushed for 255 yards and two scores and Jacob Mansdorfer
added two rushing touchdowns as well.
On the year, Roper has 2,537 yards (an average of 195.2 a game) and 34 touchdowns. The Tigers also have 33.5 sacks, led by seven from Nathan Hackney
and 6.5 from Jaymeson Nelms