After opening the season on a shutout loss to Centauri, the Paonia Eagles overcame the odds to enter first-round state playoffs ranked 11th in the state. On a windy field in eastern Colorado, Paonia ended the season Saturday on a 21-13 first-round playoff loss to sixth-ranked Burlington.
Blaine Escher completes his second season as the Eagles' head coach with a 6-4 record and a second-place finish in the Western Slope League. Burlington was "a very good match for us. We could not have gotten a better seeding in playoffs," said Escher ahead of Saturday's game.
Paonia ensured a first-round playoff berth on Oct. 26, the final conference game of the season, on a 27-21 conference win in overtime against Cedaredge. "We kind of overlooked them, I'll be honest," said Escher. "But that was good for us... The adversity that we overcame is going to make us a better team in the long run."
Cedaredge had a 14-13 lead with just over four minutes remaining in the game and scored its final touchdown for a 20-13 lead. The Bruins failed on the two-point conversion attempt that would have all but guaranteed a win and a playoff berth.
With time running out, the Eagles made an 85-yard scoring drive, helped by a 15-yard penalty against Cedaredge and capped by a touchdown pass from Grey Neal to Carlos Lozano. Neal carried for a two-point conversion to tie the game with under a minute remaining.
In overtime, the Bruins were given possession on the Paonia 10-yard line and fumbled the ball away, giving Paonia the opportunity to score the winning touchdown.
How far Grey Neal, a junior first-year starting quarterback, came this season was reflected in that win, said Escher. Neal completed 27 of 62 passes for 437 yards and five TDs and rushed for 306 yards in 89 carries. "He has come so far this year... You can't ask for a better leader and a better quarterback for this team at this point in time."
Paonia will lose six seniors, among them the team's three top running backs. Sackett Chesnik ends the season with 408 yards in 95 carries and five total touchdowns, Jesse Burns had 87 carries for 495 yards and six TDs, and Anthony Felice had 106 carries for 783 yards and nine TDs and ran for 100-plus yards in four games. The three running backs and Neal led the team in both solo and total tackles.
While the team had some down moments that included a 32-0 conference loss to Meeker, it also gave Basalt, currently ranked third in state in Class 2A, one of its closest games of the season.
"It's the way you bounce back from those downs that makes this team unique," said Escher. "That Cedaredge game, that was huge adversity for us," he said, because it was the first game they scored in after being scored on first, a reality Escher said he's not proud of.
But it was the kind of adversity they'd been looking to overcome the entire season, said Escher. "It was just so tense; it was one of the craziest games I've ever been involved in."