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Paonia's title hopes dashed

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Photo by Eric Goold Paonia junior Dagan Rienks reaches for the skies, and the ball, in the first quarter against Buena Vista. He caught Taylor Walters' pass for the first touchdown of the game, but the Eagles would go on to fall just short of their quest

For the first time in three years, the Eagles came up just short.

Buena Vista shut out the Eagles in the second half of the 1A state championship football game and prevented Paonia from winning its third consecutive title after the Demons won 27-20 last Saturday in Buena Vista.

In a rematch of last year's state title game, Buena Vista (13-0) put all the pieces together and found a way to contain Player of the Year Taylor Walters. The Demons won state after finishing as runner up in two of the past three seasons.

"It feels really good," said Buena Vista coach Matt Flavin. "These guys have worked really hard. They all deserve it, and not just for the team we have right now, but this is for all the other ones that came so close. We're bringing it back home to BV."

It was a tale of two halves as Paonia started the game determined to achieve the coveted 3-peat. Senior Jeramiah Hillman took the opening kickoff back for what looked like a touchdown, but a blocking in the back penalty set up the Eagles inside the Demons' 20-yard line.

The Eagles (11-2) ran a six-play drive that ended with Walters tossing a 6-yard touchdown to Dagan Rienks, who stretched out to his full height and pulled the ball down while just staying in bounds for the score.

Colby Simpson booted the extra point and the two-time defending champions took an early 7-0 lead.

Both teams traded possessions that ended after being stopped on fourth down running plays.

Then Buena Vista put together a long drive featuring a screen pass to Cooper Eggleston and several runs by quarterback Keegan Wentz, who ran for a 4-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.

Wentz was as good as advertised, finishing with a game-high 153 rushing yards and several times almost single-handedly keeping the Demons in the game.

After Ty Koch tied the game with his extra point, Paonia reclaimed the lead, 14-7, less than two minutes later. Hillman galloped 61 yards for a touchdown, bursting through the line and splitting the Demons' defense right up the middle.

Paonia's offense got the ball right back as the ensuing Buena Vista drive was stopped on three plays and a punt.

The Eagles mounted a 56-yard drive that ended when Walters barreled four yards into the end zone and Paonia took a 20-7 lead after a nearly perfect first half.

After that it was all Demons. Flavin said that a halftime pep talk about last year's loss in the title game got Buena Vista's players motivated to dominate the second half.

"I think our guys just refocused and rallied around each other," Flavin said. "We started getting a little tired and got in that slump like we did last year. We kind of reminded them of that and then our guys just battled in the second half. Every single one of them stepped up and played hard."

Paonia only got the ball three times in the second half and couldn't get its potent ground game going against a hard-hitting Demons defense.

"That's what we wanted. We wanted a game with only a few drives for both sides," Paonia coach Brent McRae said. "But when we got the ball, we didn't execute and when they got the ball, they did. And that's why they won."

Buena Vista recovered a squib kick to open the second half with great field position on the 48. Wentz started the drive with a 19-yard scamper and then finished it with a 6-yard touchdown run as the home team cut Paonia's lead to 20-14.

Paonia's first possession of the second half saw the Eagles string together several plays before Walters was stopped by Josh Yates, a senior cornerback who made a couple of key tackles in the second half for the Demons.

Buena Vista got the ball back and chewed several minutes off the clock before Wentz connected with Yates on a 6-yard slant for a touchdown. Koch's kick put the Demons ahead for good 21-20 with 9:29 left in the contest.

The Eagles answered by driving right down the field and setting up a fourth-and-inches play from the Demons' 16. Walters and Jaden Miller misplayed the exchange on a handoff, however, and Paonia was stymied.

"Just a good high school ballgame," McRae said. "Their kids made plays and we didn't. Most of the time we just hurt ourselves, but they kind of put us in a position to do that so you got to give credit to the other side."

Paonia's defense rallied one last time and got the ball back for the offense. On their own 30 with 1:57 left, the Eagles succumbed to Buena Vista's constant pass rush, and Walters was sacked twice for big losses.

On third down, Walters was hit as he attempted a deep throw, and Wentz intercepted the ball and returned it for a 45-yard touchdown, providing the final margin and handing Paonia its third loss in three seasons.

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