Paonia's 35-23 state quarterfinal loss to Bennett was a tough one, but head coach Blaine Escher had nothing but praise for his players. Bennett, after all, has lost just five games in the last three seasons and is now 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state as they head into next week's semifinals.
The only disappointing factor for the Eagles was the final score. Their performance showed that the Eagles deserved to be in the playoffs, said Escher. "The effort was there all game long."
Down by 18 points with under a minute remaining in the game, Paonia scored one last time when lead rusher Jaden Miller followed his blocks through the line for a two-yard touchdown. A four-year varsity player and top-five rusher in the state, Escher said it was appropriate that Miller end his four-year high school career with a touchdown. It was his 22nd touchdown of the season.
"I wanted to score, because we're not teaching giving up here at Paonia," said Escher, a 2011 Paonia alum and former starting wide receiver. "We strive for excellence. That means even though we're down by two scores, putting one in at the end, that's what we're going to do."
The Tigers gave credit to Paonia for being their toughest foe this season, said Escher. "They're the No. 1 team. With their size, their speed, that means a lot coming from that kind of a team."
Paonia twice held the lead in the first half. "We went shot for shot with them in that first half," said Escher. Defending Bennett's "explosive offense" was tricky. They have the ability to make big scoring plays almost at will. But the Eagles defense held the Tigers to their lowest scoring game of the season.
Three of those explosive plays came in the first half, said Escher, and all three resulted in touchdowns.
Paonia scored on the opening drive of the game on a field goal by Cade Meilner with 4:06 remaining in the quarter after Bennett's often impenetrable defense held them on a goal-line stand from inside the five-yard line.
Bennett's first big play came on its opening possession when junior Mason Wakeham broke loose for a 54-yard touchdown run. The two-point conversion gave Bennett an 8-3 lead with 3:26 remaining in the first period.
Early in the second quarter Paonia recovered a fumble at the Bennett 44-yard line. Miller, Jesse Burns and Sackett Chesnik took turns carrying the ball, and with 4:06 remaining in the half, while the Tiger defense was covering receivers, Chesnik swung far left to score a four-yard touchdown. Meilner's PAT gave Paonia a 10-8 lead.
With just over two minutes remaining in the half, Bennett's Mason Wakeham broke loose for a 60-yard TD run. Paonia thwarted the two-point conversion, and on the ensuing possession was forced to punt. With seconds remaining, Bennett scored on another big play and took a 22-10 lead on the two-point conversion.
In the second half Miller made a few wildcat plays at quarterback. Escher said the team played around with the idea in practice, and decided to let the all-state senior running back give it a try.
Late in the third quarter Miller opened up the Bennett defense on a faked pass to the right, running left for a 25-yard touchdown with 1:21 remaining in the third quarter.
In the fourth period the Eagles recovered a Tiger fumble, but were plagued by penalties and forced to punt on a fourth-and-25 situation.
Bennett was forced to punt on its final possession, and the Eagles drove the ball 51 yards, with Miller capping the drive on his final touchdown.
For Paonia's seniors, including Meilner, Miller, Cyrus Malek-Madani, Derek Holt, Luis Chavez, Kaden Heiniger, Clay Campbell and Marco Carrillo, this is the first year the Eagles didn't win a quarterfinal game. Paonia was seeded ninth heading into post-season play and blanked No. 8 Peyton in the first round of play in a game dubbed the "Wind Bowl" for its 50-mph gusts. The only other Western Slope conference team in the playoffs, second-seeded Meeker, was upset Saturday by No. 10 Limon.
This was also the seniors' second home loss in four years. They were sophomores when Escher started coaching under Brent McRae. "Those seniors have meant the world to me," said Escher. They give all they had, in every game and at every practice, "every day, day in and day out."
For Escher, the game also marked the end to a great first season as head coach. The Eagles ended the season with an overall 8-3, 4-1 conference record.
"I'm never going to forget this year," said Escher. When offered the job last spring, he initially thought it would be too much, but after more thought -- his earliest mentoring of the seniors dated back to elementary school -- and urging by friends including assistant coach Josh Burns he accepted the challenge. He brought in former teammate Lucas Wiggins and retained assistant coaches Scott Rienks and Don Holt.
"I think back to that and think, 'How could I not take this job?' This team means the world to me," he said.
The game also marked Coach Rienks' last game coaching football. Rienks joined the coaching staff in 2007 and was head coach in 2011-2012. He announced at the beginning of the season that he will give up coaching football to follow son Dagan's football career at Colorado Mesa University. He will continue to coach the girls basketball team, which he has coached since 2007, including state title runs in 2010 and 2017.
"He's meant the world to me ever since I was in high school," said Escher, who was a 5-foot, 6-inch freshman running back Rienks' first year at Paonia. "He is so experienced and he is just such a great person." He praised Rienks' level-headed coaching skills and called him a "genuine person. Having him be an assistant and having him mentor me through this first year... is equivalent to five years on my own."