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Eagles fall to SHS Indians

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Photo courtesy Steven Vetter The I-70 Scout/Eastern Colorado News Paonia quarterback Dagan Rienks (13) is the ointment that attracted seven Strasburg defenders in a semifinal football game played in Strasburg last Saturday. Jaden Miller (1), and one other unidentified Eagle, work to free Rienks from the onslaught of Indians. Strasburg had too much for perennial power Paonia and moved on to the finals in Class 1A with a 49-28 victory.
Photo Courtesy Steven Vetter Paonia’s Jaden Miller (1) battles Strasburg’s Jeremy Ladd (22) for ball possession.

In the end, the Eagles just got worn out.

The football team from Paonia High School was up to the challenge but didn't have enough depth to beat an athletic and physical Strasburg team in the 1A state semifinals on Saturday.

The Indians (12-0) broke open a close game in the third quarter and went on to beat Paonia 49-28 in Strasburg, ending the Eagles magnificent four-year run in the playoffs.

"They just had a few more athletes. They just had a few more people make plays, that's all," Paonia coach Brent McRae said. "You have a few more people make plays, you're gonna win. That's a great football team."

Paonia finished the season 10-2 and for the first time in four years will not play in the 1A state championship game.

"Their numbers wore us down in the end," McRae said. "It was close. We had our chances, we just couldn't get over the hump. We kept fighting and I was proud of my kids. It was just a war of attrition and we wore down."

Strasburg won the coin toss and took the ball to open the contest. The Eagles stopped them on fourth down and had promising field position on their first drive, but also were stopped on fourth down.

The teams traded possessions again, and then the home team got on the board first when Hunter Bergstrom ripped off a 51-yard touchdown run.

Paonia responded with a 12-play scoring drive, keyed by two third down conversions off of passes from Dagan Rienks to Trevor Smith. The last play was a 33-yard touchdown pass from Rienks to Colby Simpson and the Eagles tied the game 7-7 with a little less than 10 minutes left in the first half.

Strasburg quarterback Connor Martin answered with a 34-yard scoring strike to Chase Starman and the Indians jumped ahead 13-7. Strasburg never once trailed in the contest.

On the ensuing Paonia drive, a holding penalty backed the Eagles up to their own 13-yard line. Under heavy pressure, Rienks threw on the run and was intercepted by Jeremy Ladd, who returned it for a pick six. After the 2-point conversion pass the home team led 21-7.

A 13-play drive for Paonia ended with Smith's 1-yard touchdown run and Paonia went into halftime trailing 21-14.

The Eagles were stopped on downs to open the second half, then Bergstrom struck again with a 59-yard scoring jaunt that put the Indians in front 28-14.

The long run came on the exact same stretch play that Strasburg scored with on its first touchdown.

"Hunter is just a tough runner and he's fast and it's been a play that's worked for us all year," Indians head coach Jeff Giger said. "Both times he was able to hit it. We thought we could get outside on them. They stopped it at first, but we were finally able to get going with what we do well."

Paonia punted for the first time on its next possession but got the ball back when Blake Benson forced a fumble that Warren Minerich recovered.

Rienks hit Jaden Miller on a 40-yard touchdown pass immediately after the turnover and Paonia trailed 28-21 with almost six minutes left in the third quarter.

After that it was all Indians.

"Our kids have believed all year. They really bought into it," Giger said. "We got some good linemen up front and we got some speed on the edge. I think our depth kind of wore them down a little bit."

Strasburg put together a 12-play drive that ended with Martin's 5-yard touchdown pass to Bergstrom and the Indians led 35-21.

Paonia punted, then the Indians went 41 yards in four plays and scored on Bergstrom's 30-yard scamper that made it 42-21. An interception set up the home team on its next possession and Starman ran in a 6-yard score to lock up the game for Strasburg at 49-21.

Rienks threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Smith near the end of the fourth quarter to provide the final margin.

The 11 seniors on Paonia's roster finished their high school football careers with a 46-5 record and two 1A state championships, a remarkable record of success that surely will never be bested in Paonia history.

"The one thing I want people to take away is how proud I am of the seniors," McRae said. "The underclassmen and the fans and the community get behind this team and I know it didn't end the way we wanted, but I think if we look back at the last four years it's something that can never be taken away. It's pretty special."

As for Strasburg, the Indians will be in Meeker on Saturday for the 1A state championship game in a battle of unbeaten teams that are ranked No. 1 and No. 2.

"I know they have a pretty darn good quarterback and they're going to be tough and physical like all of the Western Slope League teams," Giger said. "For now we're going to enjoy this one. To beat Paonia is something special and we're going to enjoy it."

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