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Eagles look for third grid title

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Photo by Eric Goold Members of the Paonia High School football team line up in an I-formation to work on offensive plays during a recent practice session.

Two consecutive state titles. A 23-game winning streak. The reigning Player and Coach of the Year.

While the numbers are gaudy, don't think the Paonia Eagles are resting on their laurels. The quest for a third 1A state football championship began in earnest last week, and the Eagles have many new faces but the same hard-nosed attitude.

"It's been pretty nice because with all these new guys coming in, they're not living in the past at all," Paonia coach Brent McRae said. "They've been waiting in the wings, they're juniors now and some seniors, and they think, 'Now it's my time to show, hey, I can do it too, we can win it again.' That's the attitude those guys are taking, and it's been pretty refreshing."

First and foremost, the Eagles are facing the loss of 12 seniors from their roster a year ago.

It's not just the quantity but the quality of the players who graduated that will be missed.

"What we told them is you don't replace what you lost. You have to be the best player you can be, you're not trying to replace anybody," McRae said. "We're putting new people in there, and it's your job to do the best you can. Just be yourself and get better."

It's the losses up front that hurt the most as Paonia will feature an entirely new offensive line this year.

"We've got a new corps of offensive linemen that we're trying to break in and their effort level and attention to detail is a lot higher than we've seen in a long time," McRae said. "In the skill positions we're looking really good but in that O-line we gotta learn how to get it done for those backs."

Leading the way, of course, will be Taylor Walters, now in the senior year of his record-setting high school career.

Expect Walters to take snaps under center, to run from the tailback position and also to lead the defense from the safety position.

The key will be to find other options and lighten the load for Walters.

"Everyone knows that Taylor Walters is one of the go-to guys, and he gets the ball a lot," McRae said. "Through the course of a season you can't give him the ball all the time. We've got some ideas, we've got Jeramiah Hillman, we've got Trevor Smith, we've got Colby Simpson, Dagan Rienks, some guys that are fully capable of handling the ball a little bit. So you want to lessen the load a bit and spread the ball around."

The mix of highly experienced veterans and enthusiastic but unproven youngsters will have to gel early.

Paonia's schedule is one of the roughest in the state, including the runner up from two years ago (Centauri), a road trip to face the eighth-ranked team in 2A (Bayfield), and opens on the road Sept. 4 at Monte Vista, a perennial 1A playoff team.

"We scheduled for toughness," McRae said. "Not only for the tough teams, but you look at our schedule, and we've probably got eight of the top ten coaches in the state on our schedule. Even if their talent's down, their coaching staffs are so good that every game is tough."

The past three 1A state champions have come from the Western Slope League, and McRae said he expects the league will again be the best.

The first CHSAA online football poll has Paonia ranked first, Meeker at third and Cedaredge at eighth.

It's business as usual for the Eagles, and they are taking nothing for granted.

"It's the old cliché: one game at a time," McRae said. "With our young team, it's one day at a time. We're just trying to get better at practice, and when the games come, we'll take care of those."

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