Despite a rough first half that included four turnovers, the Paonia football team is headed to the semifinals. Under first-year head coach Brent McRae Paonia played last Saturday to a state quarterfinal, 31-15 win over Monte Vista to advance to this Saturday's semifinal game against Buena Vista.
Paonia has made the playoffs eight times since 2000. The last time it was in the semifinals was in 2003, when it was shut out at home by Limon.
The Eagles held the Pirates to 19 yards and seven plays in their first two possessions. On the Eagles' opening possession, Josh Altman pulled down a 39-yard pass from Taylor Walters at the Monte Vista 23 yard line, and Gunnar Ches-nik scurried to the 2-yard line to set up the scoring run by Will Austin. Colby Simpson kicked his first of two PATs with just under nine minutes remaining in the first quarter.
After recovering an Eagles fumble, the Pirates marched the ball to inside the Paonia 5, where they were stopped at the 2-yard line. On fourth-and-4, Tony Darling got his first of two sacks for the game and Paonia took over on downs.
Paonia was inside the Monte Vista 40-yard line with just over five minutes left in the half when Monte Vista stripped Walters of the ball at its own 33-yard line, then marched the ball 67 yards in 10 plays for the touchdown and PAT to tie the game up. The Eagles were in the red zone with 37 seconds remaining in the half when a Walters pass was picked off. Paonia was able to hold the Pirates and end the half with a 7-7 tie.
It wasn't their best first half of the year, "but that was not a huge concern," said McRae.
"They played much harder than we did in the first half," said assistant coach and defensive coordinator, Eric "Pops" McRae, who had to make early, minor adjustments to the defensive line. "The offensive line was better than we thought. They handled us up front for a while."
Brent McRae said he told his players at halftime that if they wanted to, they could win. "They had to fire themselves up, they had to figure it out. And they did."
Paonia opened the second half with a 74-yard drive, fueled by a 22-yard pass from Walters to Joel Simianer; Walters then tossed the ball to Gunnar Chesnik for the two-point conversion and a 15-7 lead.
With 10 minutes remaining in the third period, Paonia took advantage of a fourth-and-long situation inside the Pirate 30-yard line. Altman took a long snap from Ty Coats and held the ball upright while Simpson, a freshman place kicker, nailed the first field goal attempt of his career, a 38-yarder, to put Paonia ahead, 18-7.
With 7:40 remaining in the game, Paonia got possession at midfield on a short, high punt. Walters scurried up the middle for a touchdown, but was called back on a holding penalty. On third and goal, Walters connected with Logan Schopp on a 5-yard touchdown pass. Simpson's PAT was blocked and Paonia took a 24-7 lead.
The Pirates put up an eight-point combo with 3:33 remaining in the game. Joel Simianer recovered the ensuing on-side kick at the 40-yard line, and Paonia kept the ball in-bounds to eat a minute off the clock and drive the ball 60 yards, with Austin following Chesnik through the Pirates' defense and across the goal line; Simpson's PAT put Paonia up by 16 points.
With just under two minutes left in the game, Schopp picked off a Monte Vista pass and Paonia ran the clock out.
Austin rushed for a season-high 227 yards and two touchdowns in 17 carries. Chesnik averaged just over 10 yards per carry in seven carries, and Walters had four carries for 66 yards. Walters also connected on five of nine passes for 111 yards.
The defensive line came game-ready, holding Monte Vista to 19 yards in its first two possessions, and 204 yards total. While they made some big plays, the Pirates didn't get past the Eagle front line often. Among other impressive efforts, Simianer, Chase Park, Chesnik and Schopp combined for 30 of Paonia's 46 solo tackles and 18 of 25 assists. Darling, Park and Chesnik combined for three sacks.
Because Paonia has played two home playoff games and the Demons one, the Eagles will make the roughly 340-mile round trip to Buena Vista Saturday, where in 2012 the Demons lost the state championship game to Cedaredge.
The top four seeded teams remain alive heading into semifinals. On the lower half of the bracket, No. 3 Centauri defeated Burlington 27-13, and No. 2 Limon blanked Yuma by 22 points to advance to this Saturday's semifinal games. On the top half, No. 1 seeded Buena Vista outscored Resurrection Christian, 42-35.
"This is a game that I feel we should have won easily," said Carsten, "but we lacked the emotion and passion that we played with all year."
Because the team had such high expectations, the losses were tough to swallow, said Carsten, who admits that a 25-2 season "is pretty darn awesome."
"Some programs can only dream of what these girls accomplished, and we actually got to live it," continued Carsten.
Paonia's record is the best the school has recorded since 2007. The 2012 team, the first Paonia team to qualify for state in more than two decades, raised the bar.
"Going to the state tournament is no longer a goal, it is an expectation," said Carsten, who wants to take next year's team to the next level, including scheduling stronger teams early in the season, and competing in tougher tournaments this summer. "We really need to face some top 2A teams in competition to prepare for the state tournament experience."
Paonia will graduate three seniors, Shylar Wilson, Susan Nieman, and outside hitter Carson Pipher, who is ranked in the top 10 in the state in kills with 347 for the season.
Pipher was selected to play in the Colorado Coaches of Girls' Sports annual all-state volleyball games in Arvada this weekend.
Carsten has a lot to work with, including 11 players with at least one state tournament to their credit.
This year's C-team went undefeated, and the junior varsity squad had two losses.
"I believe that our program is continuing to get stronger and will be successful for many years to come," said Carsten.blog comments powered by Disqus