Despite fumbling the ball away on their first two possessions, the Paonia Eagles posted a 43-6 win Friday over Ridge View Academy.
"It was a good win, but it wasn't a great win," said head coach Blaine Escher. "You cannot cough up the ball in the red zone. Absolutely not. And we did it three times. Against a great team, that's going to be the end of us."
Two touchdown runs were called back on penalties.
On the bright side, Jaden Miller ran for 179 yards and three touchdowns in 14 carries, recovering one of his fumbles for a touchdown. Kyle Long also recovered a Rams fumble that led to another touchdown.
"That's just capitalizing on opportunities," said Escher. "Players they don't have bad days, just bad moments. They just have to bounce back and play in the present."
Gray Neal, Cyrus Malek-Madani and Sackett Chesnik had great days on both sides, said Escher, and Anthony Felice had three key receptions for 53 yards.
Paonia got off to a sketchy start, fumbling the ball away on its opening play. After the Rams turned the ball over on downs, Paonia fumbled it away again, leading to a nine-yard touchdown for the Rams.
After a kickoff return by Jesse Burns to the Rams 40-yard line, a touchdown run by Miller was called back on a penalty. The Eagles marched downfield, with Miller punching through the Rams line for a three-yard touchdown.
Early in the second quarter Miller converted a fourth-and-one situation into a six-yard touchdown.
On the ensuing Rams possession, Neal recovered a fumble, then ran a play for a 32-yard touchdown. Caden Meilner kicked his third PAT of the game to give Paonia a 21-6 lead.
With just under six minutes remaining in the half, Rams running back J. Roble got past the secondary and was on his way to a touchdown when Neal caught him just inside the 20-yard line. The Rams were inches from scoring when Paonia executed a goal-line stand. Clay Campbell tackled the Rams quarterback for a loss on fourth down to end the half.
Early in the third period Paonia fumbled the ball away again. Neal came through again, intercepting a Rams' pass at the Paonia 10-yard line. Paonia then inched the ball up the field, with Miller capping the drive with a touchdown.
Ridge View recovered a fumble deep in Paonia territory to end the quarter. Paonia held them to a four-and-out to open the fourth, and Meilner ran three yards into the end zone with 9:41 remaining in the game. Meilner's PAT gave Paonia a 40-6 lead.
Paonia kept the pressure on the Rams, with Kyle Long recovering a fumble on the ensuing possession, setting up a 42-yard field goal by Meilner with 2:43 to go in the game.
Meilner had room to spare, said Escher. "That's huge. In 1A football, that's a weapon."
Ridge View Academy is a school for at-risk youth and is a partnership between the Colorado Department of Human Services Division of Youth Corrections and Denver Public Schools. After the win, two Rams players who grew up in Buena Vista and played against the Eagles in the 2015 title game, praised the coaches and players and thanked them for their good sportsmanship.
"Being able to come back here and have this much of a good game against a good team, it's a real privilege," one of the players told the DCI.
"They came over to me and they said that we're the most disciplined and most respectful team they've played in a long time," said Escher. "That meant so much to me as a first-year head coach."
Not only were the players respectful, "That shows me that whatever we're teaching these guys, they're grasping it," he said. "They're not just football players; they're becoming young adults. And they're grasping it. They're building character."
And while they celebrated the win, the game was overshadowed by last week's tragic death of former Eagles quarterback, Casey Gillenwater.
"It's been a hard week for us," said Escher. A 2011 graduate, Gillenwater was a close friend to Escher and the coaches. Gillenwater had a career 4,506 yards passing and led Paonia to the state quarterfinals his senior year.
The 50-yard line was decorated by Scott Burns to include an eagle, Gillenwater's number 17, and his initials.
Before the game was played there was a moment of silence. The team also dedicated the game to Gillenwater, said Escher. "They're a new generation of Eagles, but when one goes down, the others step in and fill their place."
Paonia is ranked sixth heading into week four. It hosts Roaring Fork at 7 p.m. Friday.
This is Homecoming week at Paonia High School, and Gillenwater was the Eagles' homecoming king in 2010. "We're going to do something special for him," said Escher.