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PHS gridders pass big test

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Photo by Eric Goold Paonia quarterback Taylor Walters hands off to Jeramiah Hillman (33) while Jaden Miller (1) moves upfield to block in the first quarter of the Eagles' 34-30 win last Friday at Paonia Town Park. Walters had three touchdowns and Hillman

The 1A Western Slope Conference still has three weeks to play, but last Friday's game between Meeker and Paonia went a long way toward determining who will be the conference champion.

Paonia put itself in the driver's seat for a third straight conference title after defeating the Cowboys 34-30 in a wild game at Paonia Town Park.

"In the Western Slope you've got a lot of great teams," Paonia coach Brent McRae said. "Any win you can get in the Western Slope you've got to appreciate. Now we've just got to work and get better."

It was a back and forth, seesaw affair that saw each team trade scores throughout the night, and the game wasn't decided until the last play.

As is often the case when these two teams battle, a lot of points were scored and the spotlight shined on two of the best players in 1A football, Taylor Walters and Meeker's senior standout TJ Shelton.

"In every sport they're a huge rival, they're beating us, we're beating them. It's just a huge rivalry," Walters said after scoring three touchdowns in the win. "TJ is a great player, one of the best running backs in the state. He showed that tonight."

Walters scored first, a 3-yard touchdown run that capped a 10-play opening drive for Paonia. Colby Simpson's extra point put the Eagles ahead 7-0.

Meeker needed eight plays to answer, and Shelton scored from 11 yards out to put the Cowboys on the board. Shelton ran in the two-point conversion and put Meeker up 8-7, the first of six lead changes in the contest.

Walters responded with his eye-popping 64-yard touchdown scamper a little over seven minutes later. Walters swept around the left edge and then decked two Cowboys, splitting the defenders and blazing untouched into the house.

Simpson's kick was blocked and Paonia led 13-8.

Meeker's defense rallied to turn the ball over on downs, and the Cowboys had one last chance from their own 46-yard line with 6.9 seconds left in the first half.

With the Paonia defense pulled back to defend the Hail Mary and everyone in Town Park expecting a pass, Meeker quarterback Logan Hughes handed the ball to Shelton, who took it all the way into the end zone for an astonishing 54-yard touchdown.

Hughes ran in the two-pointer himself and the Cowboys led at halftime, 16-13.

Neither defense stopped the offenses in the game and points came in a frenzy in the second half.

"A game with Meeker never surprises you," McRae said. "If you total it back, this has been a tight series. I have a lot of respect for Meeker, their coaches and their players. It was a fun game."

Paonia reclaimed the lead on its first possession of the second half, getting a 3-yard touchdown run from Jeramiah Hillman that put the Eagles in front 20-16.

The lead didn't last long as Hughes barreled into the end zone from 18 yards out a little over three minutes later. Paonia's Trevor Smith stuffed the two-point run attempt and Meeker led 22-20.

Sophomore Jaden Miller found the end zone next for Paonia, running in a 1-yard touchdown and collecting a two-point pass from Walters to make it 28-22 with five seconds left in the third quarter.

Meeker's Casey Turner caused Walters to fumble away Paonia's next possession. Walters said that it was his first fumble of the season.

But Paonia got the ball right back. Under a fierce pass rush, Hughes tossed an interception right to Miller, who returned the ball deep into Meeker territory.

Walters ran in his third score two plays later, a 2-yard touchdown that put Paonia ahead for good at 34-22 with six minutes left in the game.

Meeker did not go away quietly as Hughes led the Cowboys down the field and then scored on a 3-yard touchdown run. His two-point pass to Cole Brown provided the final margin with 2:36 remaining in the game.

Paonia got the ball back after the ensuing onside kick went out of bounds. The Eagles clinched the win by getting two first downs and running out the clock.

"Their shotgun was really good. Their quarterback was much improved over last year and he showed us he can do it," Walters said. "We've got to fix some things on defense. We've got to get better on our pass coverages and we'll be OK."

Paonia, ranked third in a CHSAA online poll, moved to 5-1, 2-0 with the win. The Eagles are at Lake County on Friday night.

Meeker, ranked ninth, slipped to 3-3, 1-1 after the defeat. The Cowboys go home on Friday night to play unbeaten No. 4 Cedaredge (6-0, 2-0).

"We have a very, very good opponent next week in Cedaredge," Meeker coach Shane Phelan said. "We can't hang our heads too long about this one because we have a high-quality opponent next."

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