There were plenty of tears to go around for the Paonia Eagles after they lost 27-20 to Buena Vista in the 1A state championship game last Saturday in Buena Vista.
Paonia attempted to become the 20th high school team in Colorado history to win three state titles in a row. While the Eagles fell short and it hurt bad after the game, all the players knew they had a lot to be proud of.
"All I can do is tell them how much I love them. It's gonna hurt. It will hurt for a few days, but they'll bounce back," Paonia coach Brent McRae said. "I'm just so proud of them. Hopefully we'll look back on these past three years and know we did a good job, but right now it's hard to say."
The loss was particularly painful for Taylor Walters. The senior quarterback completed his Paonia career with 125 touchdowns, fourth all-time in Colorado history. He is the seventh leading rusher of all time with 6,658 yards.
"It's kind of sinking in," Walters said. "It's upsetting because these are my friends, my best friends, and I'll always love them and it just hurts to go out and lose the last one with them."
In a rematch of last year's state title game, Buena Vista used four down linemen and a swarming secondary to stop Paonia's vaunted rushing attack.
"They knew our defense and offense better, and they knew how to stop all of our key plays," Walters said. "And they were really physical this year."
On at least four different running plays in the game, Walters was gang-tackled by what seemed like the entire Demons defense as the home team focused on stopping the Player of the Year.
Walters finished with 78 rushing yards in the game.
After jumping out to a 20-7 lead at halftime, the Eagles were not prepared for the Demons' dominant second half.
"They came out more fired up than us, and I think we kind of let down a little bit and thought we had it won," Walters said. "Then they just started scoring on us."
Fellow senior and best friend Jeramiah Hillman led the Eagles with 149 rushing yards in the game. Walters and Hillman started playing together as early as the second grade.
Trevor Plymale, Willy Darling, Austin Katzer and Tyler Dennison were the other Paonia seniors playing in their final prep game.
"Taylor's a blast to coach. He's a very humble kid. All of them are. All of our kids are so humble, and they play so hard. They all love each other so much and Taylor's a big part of that and so are all of the seniors," McRae said. "Hillman and Darling, and Katzer coming on this year. Dennison is another senior who did a hell of a job, and Trevor Plymale came out and was physical today. They all just really helped the program move along."
The sting of defeat was softened by the knowledge that these seniors left a lasting legacy on future generations of Eagles.
"It makes me feel like I left a legacy for this school and that my class did, too," Walters said. "Hopefully they'll follow in our footsteps and make it back here on this field again next year."