The Paonia High School football team found itself in unfamiliar territory last Saturday afternoon.
On the road. Trailing the entire game. The Eagles' season and quest for a coveted 3-peat state championship on the line.
No problem. As it has done now for the last three years, the Eagles defense rallied at just the right time and Paonia came from behind to shock Resurrection Christian 21-15 in the 1A state semifinals at Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins.
"We call it the PHD of football," Paonia coach Brent McRae said. "You've got to be physical, you've got to have heart and you've got to play with desire. We played with heart and desire and physicality, that was the key."
Leading rusher Evan Anderson ran for a 40-yard score for Resurrection Christian midway into the first quarter, then he ran in the 2-point conversion for an 8-0 Cougars lead. The home team would lead the contest until late in the fourth quarter.
"They have so much talent and speed, they jumped on us early," McRae said about the Cougars, who entered the game undefeated and averaging 49 points a game. "They were all over us early, but we were really resilient. When we got down we just kept fighting. I give all the credit to the boys for never quitting and never saying die."
Senior Taylor Walters got Paonia (11-1) on the board with his 1-yard run early in the second quarter. Colby Simpson's kick brought the Eagles to within one at 8-7.
Resurrection Christian answered with a well-conceived gadget play. Receiver Brin Hayden, who collected the ball on a reverse and pitch, threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Michael Stevenson.
"On the gadget play we just had a couple people make the wrong read, take the wrong step, and they capitalized. That's what happens against a good team," McRae said. "A couple of the kids made mistakes early in the game but came back in the second half and just made some spectacular plays."
Stevenson's kick made it 15-7 for the Cougars, and the game stayed that way through the third quarter.
Then Paonia mounted its fourth quarter comeback. Dagan Rienks caught a 2-yard touchdown toss from Walters and Paonia cut the lead to 15-13.
"Offensively our gameplan was to keep the ball," McRae said. "We wanted to control the clock, control the line of scrimmage and keep them off the field. The times we didn't score, it was our own fault. We'd get a hold or a penalty and we'd get off schedule."
Paonia's defense shined in the fourth quarter, stopping the Cougars on two more drives. Trevor Smith, Trevor Plymale and Cyrus Malek-Madani all had key defensive plays in the fourth quarter.
After a punt, Paonia got the ball on its own 31-yard line with a little over four minutes left. That's when Walters rolled to his right, waited for the play to develop, then hit KJ Seriani down the field for a 45-yard pass that set up the Eagles on the Cougars' 14.
Two plays later Jeramiah Hillman ran in from 13 yards out and gave Paonia its first lead. Walters did the honors on the 2-point conversion run and the Eagles went ahead for good 21-15.
Hillman's touchdown run capped a stellar day for the senior, who also pulled down two huge interceptions for Paonia, one in the red zone. Hillman finished with a game-high 141 rushing yards.
"Jeramiah is just getting better week by week," McRae said. "He doesn't want to lose. He played hard and fast and I was extremely proud of him."
The Eagles defense wasn't done yet. Resurrection Christian put together one last drive but was stopped when Walters picked off Anderson and essentially wrapped up the game. Paonia ran out the rest of the clock and set up a rematch of last year's 1A state title game against No. 1 Buena Vista.
"All of our boys just want to play one more game," McRae said. "They get all the credit and I just couldn't be more proud of them."
The Eagles will travel to Buena Vista for a 1 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.