5A football preview: Cherokee Trail has been 'waiting all year' to face Valor Christian again

Cherry Creek Cherokee Trail football

Cherokee Trail's defense will be a key against Valor Christian. (Jack Eberhard/JacksActionShots.com)

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No. 2 Valor Christian (11-1) at No. 6 Cherokee Trail (10-2)
1 p.m. Saturday at Legacy Stadium

Cherokee Trail has been chomping at the bit for this one. By the time Saturday's semifinal tilt with Valor Christian comes around, it will have been 357 days since the two teams met at Mile High in the 2012 Class 5A championship game.

That game, a 9-0 Valor Christian win, was actually a coming out party of sorts for Cherokee Trail. Most everyone expected the Eagles to roll the Cougars in the title game, seeing as how it was Cherokee Trail's first appearance on the big stage. Instead, it was scoreless until 6:01 remained in the fourth quarter, and wasn't over until Valor added a field goal with two minutes to go.

So when the 2013 season started, the prevailing thought was that Cherokee Trail was poised to join the state's elite. Well, here's the Cougars' chance -- facing Valor, a four-time defending champion across three classifications which has never lost in the postseason (20-0) in the short, but illustrious, history of the school. The Eagles have actually not lost (22-0) to an in-state team since their 2012 opener, and are 46-1 against Colorado teams since Oct. 2010.

So it will be a tall task when sixth-seeded Cherokee Trail hosts No. 2 Valor at 1 p.m. Saturday at Legacy Stadium.

"We've been waiting all year," Cherokee Trail defensive back Izaiah Lottie said after his team's win over Cherry Creek in the quarterfinals. "Almost 365 days, we've been waiting."

Valor Christian senior Christian McCaffrey (5) attempts to shed the tackle of Columbine senior Bernard McDondle on Friday night. The Eagles beat Columbine in the 5A quarterfinal game 49-13 to set up a rematch of last year's 5A state title game against Cherokee Trail in the semifinals next week. (Dennis Pleuss)

Valor Christian senior Christian McCaffrey (5). (Dennis Pleuss)

"We really felt was that we were going to have to beat Creek and Valor to win it," Cherokee Trail coach Monte Thelen said.

As usual, things will hinge on how Cherokee Trail's defense handles Valor's Christian McCaffrey. The senior is coming off a season-best 272 rushing yards in a quarterfinal win over Columbine. Despite being pulled in the third quarter of most games, he has 38 total touchdowns this season -- a figure that is second in the state. Most telling, though, is that McCaffrey is averaging 12.82 yards per carry this season, which would be a big-school record.

Cherokee Trail will counter with junior Cameron Smith, who had 172 yards rushing and a score against Cherry Creek. He has 1,554 yards this season, and has scored 18 touchdowns in his team's past eight games.

Its biggest asset on Saturday, though, will be its defense. That side of the ball forced six turnovers in the quarterfinals, and has the speed to contend with Valor Christian.

No. 1 Fairview (11-0) at No. 5 ThunderRidge (11-1)
1 p.m. Saturday at Shea Stadium

Early this week, the focus of the other 5A semifinal matchup rested on the health of ThunderRidge quarterback Brody Westmoreland. The senior was hurt on the third play of his team's quarterfinal win against Grandview -- a blindside sack he didn't see coming -- and never returned.

Afterward, Westmoreland revealed it was a back injury which kept him from the field. At that time, it looked questionable that he would play against Fairview on Saturday.

(Kevin Keyser/KeyserImages.com)

ThunderRidge quarterback Brody Westmoreland. (Kevin Keyser/KeyserImages.com)

However, X-rays and an MRI both came back clear, and he also passed concussion testing. So while Westmoreland does have a deep back bruise, he will play against the Knights.

That's hugely important for the Grizzlies, as Westmoreland is the key cog in their offense. He has 16 passing and 12 rushing touchdowns this season. Perhaps more importantly, his presence forces defenses to account for both players on ThunderRidge's read-option plays.

Fairview, meanwhile, has been 5A's lone unbeaten team for a while now, and the Knights have amassed an impressive set of victories this season. Included: Overland, Ralston Valley, Douglas County and Pomona (twice).

Their strength rests in a senior class that includes quarterback Anders Hill and wide receivers Sam Martin and Cameron Frazier.

Prior to the playoffs, Fairview coach Tom McCartney said of his seniors, "We've seen this coming from this particular group. We knew this was a talented group."

Hill has thrown for 3,321 yards this season. It's the most in the state across any classification -- and nearly 700 yards more than the next best. Martin recently set the state record for receiving yards in a season. He now has 1,604. Frazier, meanwhile, is a threat from everywhere. He has 11 receiving touchdowns, two rushing, and four more in the return game.

Making those statistics all the more impressive: Fairview had to cancel a game in the regular season during the flood week.

Fairview is in search of its first championship appearance since 2002. It also made the game in 2001, but lost in back-to-back years.

ThunderRidge last appeared in a title game in 2005, when it won 4A for the second year in a row and third time in five seasons. The Grizzlies have never been to the 5A game.