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Eagles dominate, fly by Thunderhawks in quest for three-peat

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Photo by Eric Goold Paonia senior Willy Darling (right) looks to collect his fumble while Trevor Smith (2) blocks Ellicott defensive lineman Kaleb Raven (99) on the goal line. Darling recovered the ball for his first career touchdown.

Paonia began its quest for a third consecutive 1A state football championship last Saturday with a 49-6 domination of Ellicott that was in doubt for exactly 14 seconds.

That's how long it took Jeramiah Hillman to take the opening kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown, and the Eagles just poured it on after that.

Taylor Walters scored the first time he touched the ball as well, a 74-yard jaunt that saw him run over half the Thunderhawks' defense on his way to the house.

It was the second game in a row that the fellow seniors and best friends opened the contest by scoring on back-to-back plays.

"In the playoffs you have to step up your game just a little bit more, you have to make sure you beat these teams," Walters said. "Everybody is good in the playoffs, you never know what can happen."

Hillman plowed in for an 11-yard touchdown on the Eagles third possession. Kicker Colby Simpson tossed a 2-point conversion pass to Jaden Miller and the Eagles were quickly ahead 21-0.

After that the Eagles (9-1) were afflicted with a rare case of turnovers. Paonia fumbled three times and threw an interception in the game. In all of the regular season Paonia had seven turnovers, but in this first playoff game it had four.

"Post-season nerves, I think maybe kids try to do too much," Paonia coach Brent McRae said. "But I also think because we got up so quick, we lost focus. It's when you lose focus that those things happen."

Starting quarterback Matthew Davidson, banged up at the end of the regular season, watched from the Ellicott (6-4) sideline.

Backup sophomore Chiante Stewart did the best he could under constant pressure, but a physical Eagles defense held the Thunderhawks to four passing yards in the game.

"Today we just decided to be more physical," Eagles junior Trevor Smith said. Smith was all over the field, and he seemed to be in on every tackle, reminding many fans of former Eagle Joel Simianer.

"We had to be more physical than them and knock them in the mouth pretty much," Smith said. "It's the playoffs. You get more intense, you have more fun out here."

Paonia got back on the scoreboard with senior Willy Darling's first career touchdown, but he didn't make it easy on himself. He recovered his own fumble on the goal line for the score.

"It popped up out of my arm, then fell right back into my chest, and I just fell over and it was a touchdown," Darling said. "That was my first touchdown, so I had to make sure I got the fumble back so I can get a chance to do it again. It was great, something I've never experienced."

Walters then made it 35-0 for the home team with his 29-yard touchdown run.

The Thunderhawks avoided the shutout on the ensuing kickoff, which was a live ball when Stewart collected it in his own end zone, then raced 102 yards down the Paonia sideline for an electric touchdown.

Smith completed the scoring in a long first half after he caught a 45-yard touchdown pass from Walters that sent the Eagles to intermission leading 42-6.

"When you play teams like that you've got to get up early," McRae said. "The longer you leave them in the game the more belief they have. The more belief, the scarier it is so it was real important to jump on them early. It was a little bummer that once we did get up we kind of let down a little bit."

Dagan Rienks set the running clock with his 10-yard touchdown run right up the gut midway through the third quarter.

Simpson provided the final point in the contest and finished 6-for-7 on extra points kicks.

The Eagles defense did what it has done now for three years in the playoffs: physically beat opponents on every play. Paonia held Ellicott's offense to 67 total yards.

"We were a lot more physical than they were and that helped us out a lot," Walters said. "They just didn't want to get hit anymore."

Some may love the Friday Night Lights, but there's something to be said for Saturday playoff wins, too.

"I love playing in the playoffs," Darling said. "There's something about Saturday afternoons, daylight, there's a different atmosphere."

One down, three to go. Paonia is attempting to become the 20th team in Colorado prep history to 3-peat.

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