The estimated 1,500 spectators at Saturday's Class 1A state championship football game at Paonia Town Park got what they came for: A true, hard-hitting state championship game that was undecided until the final snap of the ball.
For Paonia seniors Will Austin, Jesse Gillenwater, Jared Byrge, Tristan Littlejohn, Tony Darling, Drewe Lee and Tyler Jackson, the game was a picture-perfect ending to their high school football careers.
It was the one last job the team needed to do to complete the season, one of the best in school history: defeat Centauri, a rushing and passing team from the Southern Peaks conference that handed them their only loss of the year, a 27-14 bruiser back in week two.
Both teams upset higher-ranked teams in the semifinals — No. 3 Centauri over Limon (2) and Paonia over Buena Vista (1) to advance.
More than 50 years had passed since the Eagles won their first, and until Saturday their only, state championship in football in school history. Several members of that 1959 team, including Jack Hayden, Art Edwards, Cliff Davis, Bob Sunich, Jess Campbell and Dan Cholas, came to cheer on their successors.
"I'd really like to see us win this thing today, because football, I think, is the hardest one to win," said Cholas, a running back and kicker for that team. He and team equipment manager Randy Jackson, who drove from Conifer to see the game, each wore their 1960s-era letterman's sweaters. "I pulled it out of the moth balls," said Cholas. "It's the first time I wore it in 48 years, so hopefully we got some luck going."
While first-year head coach Brent McRae and the coaching staff of Eric McRae, Don Holt and Scott Rienks predicted an entirely different game, the memory of the earlier loss was on a lot of players' minds.
"Originally when we played them we were just dead," said lineman Chase Park after the win. "This time we have a completely re-arranged defense." The team was working as one and they knew what they needed to do to win: stop Centauri's rushing and passing games and contain Jason Buhr and quarterback KC Jarvies.
Paonia's defense combined for 11 hurries against the Falcons.
"We played with heart and we just refused to give up. And everyone just did their job," said Park. "That's just what we do is just roll football. I mean, everyone does their job, and the coaches, they each do their job."
"They fought; they could have given up but they didn't," said an emotional Brent McRae. They overcame a lot of obstacles, including more than a dozen penalties, most of which came late in the game, while Centauri was dinged with a single penalty, a late-game chop block.
Paonia held the Falcons on their opening drive.
On the opening play for Paonia, Eagles quarterback Taylor Walters threw an interception into the hands of safety Clay McCarroll, setting up a 23-yard touchdown pass from Jarvies to Buhr. The PAT failed.
The Eagles scored on the next drive, with Will Austin following blocker Gunnar Chesnik up the middle for a 1-yard touchdown. Colby Simpson's first PAT of the day went wide right.
Centauri regained the lead on a 27-yard scoring run by Buhr, and again the PAT failed.
The game tipped in the Eagles' favor when Walters, playing at safety, scored the go-ahead pick-6 from the Paonia 48-yard line, and Simpson's PAT was perfect to put Paonia ahead, 13-12. Paonia never relinquished the lead.
With just over a minute remaining in the half, Walters dropped a rainbow pass into the hands of junior wide receiver Josh Altman at the 4-yard line, leaving Falcons cornerback Shane Wilson on the ground as he made a desperate dive for the tackle.
The play went exactly as called. "Oh man, that was an amazing feeling. There's nothing else like it," said an emotional Altman, one of six Paonia players on the 2012 state champion wrestling team.
Ty Coats, the long snapper who has played much of the season on special teams, stepped in at quarterback to start the second half, and handed off to Walters on the opening drive for a 1-yard touchdown.
In the third period, the Falcons executed a 90-yard scoring drive, with Jarvies connecting with Clay McCarroll for the score; Simianer intercepted Jarvies on the conversion attempt, but the score made it a tie game, one scoring drive out of reach for the Falcons.
Aided by a block by Altman just short of the goal line, Logan Schopp scored on a 29-yard pass play to take a 32-18 lead with 26 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Walters recovered a fumble at the Falcon 23-yard line and ran it in for a score to open the fourth period. The call was negated by a post-possession penalty, and while the drive didn't end in a score, Paonia took time off the clock before the punt.
Both teams followed with a turnover — Centauri on an interception by Joel Simianer and Paonia on a lost fumble.
And, with just under four minutes remaining, Centauri scored a final touchdown on a pass from Jarvies to McCarroll. Burr was tackled for a loss on the conversion attempt.
With three minutes remaining, Centauri attempted an onside kick.
In the scramble the ball was fumbled at mid-field. Senior Jesse Gillenwater saw the loose ball and knew that if Paonia couldn't recover it, Centauri would score. Gillenwater managed to scoop the ball up before getting tackled. "That was all reaction," said Gillenwater. "I was going to block and it was just there. I wasn't going to let anybody get to it."
Despite three penalties and the possession ending in a punt, the Eagles were able to hold Centauri and take the victory formation with nine seconds remaining.
Paonia ended the season with a 12-1 record, but just how this team will remember the season remains to be seen.
For Cholas, who went on to teach at Delta for 29 years and become a sports official, the 1959 season's highlights were of his mom hosting dinner for the team after the win, and the semifinal game against Alamosa, in which Paonia was favored by 18 points, that got them to the finals.
Paonia was up, 14-0, at halftime and in the first two minutes of the second half, Alamosa running back John Phillips ("That son of a gun, he could move.") had scored two touchdowns to tie the game, which went to sudden death overtime. Back then, said Cholas, "they put the ball on the 50-yard line. We ran a play, they ran a play, and they kept track of yardage. We beat them on yardage."
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