Two years ago, Eaglecrest's playoff hopes were dashed at the last minute. A fire turned to embers. But coach Mike Schmitt didn't let those embers extinguish. He would point to them. He often tells his team to not leave their fate in another person's hands.
And the Raptors all point to that day in 2015 as a spark.
"When we were sophomores, we went through our bumps and bruises," said Eaglecrest quarterback Jalen Mergerson, now a senior. "We had a tough road — that was still with the Centennial League — and we were young. We really had to step up and we had won enough games to get in. We were looking forward to getting in, and when they made the decision, it was tough."
In late October of 2015, Highlands Ranch forfeit three wins after using an illegal communication device during games. The Falcons were 3-6 at the time, but the forfeits made them 0-9. This adjusted the Wild Cart point totals — the playoff qualification system in place at the time — of their opponents.
One of those opponents was Eaglecrest, who fell from No. 30 to No. 33 as a result of the adjusted Wild Card points. The top 32 teams made the postseason in 2015. The Raptors were out.
"At that moment, our boys made a decision that nobody — not one person — was ever going to decide our fate but us," Eaglecrest coach Mike Schmitt said this week. "Since then, we have changed the way we do things at Eaglecrest High School."
Schmitt said he brought his team in the Monday following the announced forfeits, which happened on a Saturday. He talked to his seniors first, and then the returning players separately.
"We all made a pact right then and there," Schmitt said. "We weren't going to lose any more games. I said, 'If we don't lose, nobody can tell us we can't get in.' So from that moment, we just decided that every game that we played, we didn't care if we were 10-0 or 0-10, we were going to win the game. We've been that way for the last three years."
Since that moment, Eaglecrest has gone 25-1, including a win to close 2015 in a Week 10 non-playoff matchup, and then consecutive unbeaten regular seasons. The only game the Raptors have lost came in last year's quarterfinals on a frozen field at Regis Jesuit.
"It sucked not being able to go to the playoffs sophomore year," said Eaglecrest star Victor Garnes, another senior. "We bounced back from it. We worked hard that summer going into junior year. We've been preparing for this moment ever since. And we finally have the opportunity to play on the big stage against a great team."
Added Mergerson: "We just looked at it as fuel for us as a group. We came back, as juniors, in the offseason and we just went to work because we knew nothing was going to be given to us. We gotta go earn it, we gotta go take it. And we can't, as our coach says, leave it in another person's hands.
"So we just did that," Mergerson continued. "We went out, had a great showing our junior year, and coming out this year going 13-0 and getting to the title game is icing on the cake."
Now Eaglecrest is in just its second-ever championship football game, and the first since that 1993 squad won the 5A title.
"It's every football player's dream growing up to play in that state championship game," Mergerson said. "For it to be real life now is almost surreal. It's just like, 'Wow. This is state. We're playing for it.' It's just great.
"We, as a group of seniors, we came in as freshmen — they have the 1993 trophy, and we just looked at that, and we said, 'We want to be a part of that. We want to get another one for this program, this community, and bring everyone together.'"
Said Garnes: "We've dreamt about this moment since we were freshmen. We were talking about this as freshmen."
And Schmitt: "I can tell you that this is an opportunity that we do not look lightly upon. This is an opportunity that we have worked for since that day. These seniors have earned it. We're excited about being here."
The title game appearance is part of a larger rebirth for Eaglecrest, both athletically and academically, in recent years. The school won 5A boys basketball in the spring, and its softball team was in the 5A semifinals this fall.
"When I got to Eaglecrest, it wasn't like that," said Schmitt, now in his ninth season at the school. "We kinda had some negative connotations within the community and from around the state. And some of the things that was said about it were disheartening to me.
"For the school, it is gratification for our principal, (Gwen Hansen-Vigil), for the job she has done there to make it into what it is (academically and athletically)," Schmitt continued. "It's school pride, it's community pride. It allows you to just advance everything. And that's important. That's what high school sports are about. It's about the school elevating."