It wasn't easy by any means, but the Eagles are one game away from playing in a fourth consecutive 1A state championship game.
The football team from Paonia High School got just enough big plays on both sides of the ball to defeat Burlington 22-20 in a quarterfinal game last Saturday afternoon at Paonia Town Park.
"They always play hard," Paonia senior Trevor Smith said. "They're a tough team and it's the quarterfinals so we knew it would be a tough game."
The visiting Cougars had allowed opponents more than 15 points in only one game this year. Burlington's defense was as good as advertised and its offense was opportunistic when it could be and kept the outcome in doubt until the final whistle.
The game was full of momentum swings and dramatic moments. Although the Eagles never trailed in the contest, the visitors from Burlington never let the home team breathe easy.
Paonia went three-and-out on its first drive, then the Cougars marched down the field and set up for a 35-yard field goal, which was wide left by maybe a foot.
The Eagles took advantage of the momentum swing and on the next play, senior Dagan Rienks took a quarterback keeper 70 yards to the Burlington 5-yard line.
Two plays later Rienks ran in from one yard out and Smith carried in the 2-point conversion for an 8-0 Paonia lead.
Burlington answered with a 5-yard touchdown run from Justis Marshall. Paonia junior Jaden Miller broke up the 2-point pass attempt and the Eagles led 8-6 late in the first half.
Paonia punted its next possession. Miller had a big tackle that set up Burlington with a fourth-and-long situation and Paonia called timeout with 1:04 left on the clock.
Then in the play of the game, Paonia junior Anthony Felice blocked Burlington's punt attempt. The ball sailed straight up in the air and came right down to Smith, who returned it for a touchdown and a 15-6 Eagles lead at halftime.
"We've been working on it. We put in a punt block this week and it was the perfect time to call it and we executed it and came through," Paonia coach Brent McRae said. "Players made plays."
Paonia stopped Burlington on its first two possessions in the second half and was driving late in the third quarter. On fourth and one, Smith took a handoff and ran for the apparent first down.
A Burlington defender dragged Smith down, trying to claw the ball loose. Even though the ball never changed hands and Smith never lost possession, both players had their hands on the ball and the referees ruled a fumble on the play.
"I definitely didn't think they had it, but I just had to keep my composure and I decided that we were gonna win," Smith said. "No matter what happened we were gonna win. I kept that mentality the whole time and just got the W."
The Cougars capitalized on the bad call and scored on a nifty gadget play.
Quarterback Bubba Sullivan pitched to the halfback, who took a few steps, then threw backwards to Sullivan.
Sullivan collected the pass then threw 50 yards down the field for a touchdown to Micah Johnson, cutting Paonia's lead to 15-13.
"It was a close game and I got to give all the credit to the Burlington players and coaching staff," McRae said. "They played hard and fast and I was really proud of how our kids responded to that."
Paonia responded with an 11-play scoring drive that covered 64 yards. The Eagles converted two third downs on the march, one a 19-yard pass from Rienks to Smith and the second an 8-yard run by Rienks.
Smith's 4-yard burst provided the Eagles last score and Colby Simpson's kick made it 22-13.
Burlington came right back with a 10-play drive of its own, ending with Sullivan's 15-yard touchdown toss to Jonah Hanson. The Cougars kicked the extra point to make it 22-20 with 6:39 left.
Burlington got the ball back once more but the Eagles defense held.
"We were pretty evenly matched up," McRae said. "It just came down to a couple of plays where people had to make plays and luckily we made a couple more."
The Eagles now go on the road for a semifinal matchup against unbeaten Strasburg this Saturday afternoon in Centennial.
"We'll definitely have enough left over for Strasburg," Smith said. "Success is always the best revenge."
The top four seeds in the 1A tournament made the semifinals as No. 2 Strasburg hosts No. 3 Paonia at 1 p.m. Nov. 19. and No. 1 Meeker takes on No. 4 Bennett.