PAONIA — For the first time since 1959, the Class 1A state football championship trophy resides in Paonia.
The Eagles held on to beat visiting Centauri 32-24 on Saturday afternoon at Paonia Town Park, and members of that 1959 championship team were on hand to watch this year’s Eagles squad reclaim the golden trophy.
“It means a lot, with them being here and supporting us,” said Will Austin, who capped his outstanding senior season with 92 rushing yards and a touchdown. “It’s really cool that we have such a great community that rallies around us.”
Nothing came easy against a tough Centauri team that came to Paonia on a 10-game winning streak. The streak started in week three, when the Falcons handed Paonia its only loss all season, a 27-14 setback at Town Park.
The championship game was different, however. Paonia’s physical, bruising offensive line took control and allowed playmakers Austin and Taylor Walters to ignite the offense.
Paonia head coach Brent McRae only needed one word to describe the line’s performance.
“Unbelievable,” said McRae. “That’s the heart of our team.”
Centauri scored first when quarterback K.C. Jarvies threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to senior Jason Buhr, who made a fantastic mid-air catch on the play. The Falcons were ahead early 6-0, but Paonia came right back and tied it 6-6 on Austin’s 1-yard scoring run.
The Falcons regained the lead on their next possession when Jarvies again hooked up with Ruhr, this time on a 27-yard crossing route that gave Centauri a 12-6 lead.
Then Taylor Walters took over.
The sophomore standout who led Paonia all season broke open the game when he intercepted Jarvies in front of the Centauri sideline, then scampered 52 yards for a touchdown. Paonia was ahead for good at 13-12.
“We practiced that all week and watched tons of film on it,” said Walters. “When the receiver broke I knew what was coming and I was there to make the play.”
Walters then tossed a 36-yard touchdown pass to Josh Altman and Paonia took a 20-12 lead into halftime.
The Eagles wasted no time after receiving the second half kickoff. On the third play of the possession, Walters ripped off a 58yard scoring run on a counter play that upped the Eagles lead to 26-12.
“Our linemen have been awesome all year. It’s so great running behind them,” said Walters. “Being able to run the ball helps us so much.”
Centauri refused to go away, mounting a 90-yard, 19-play drive that ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Jarvies to senior Clay McCarroll. The 2-point play failed and the Falcons trailed 26-18.
“They never quit,” said Falcons coach Kyle Forster. “Jason Buhr is the emotional leader, and the leader overall. When he gets going everybody just follows. Clay McCarroll stepped up for us and had some great catches. Our seniors are going to be hard to replace.”
Paonia responded with its final score, a 29-yard touchdown pass from Walters to Logan Schopp, and the Eagles led 32-18. Walters finished with two touchdown passes and had 121 rushing yards in the game.
The Falcons kept it in doubt and Jarvies found McCarroll again, this time a 29-yard scoring strike that rounded out the scoring in the game with 3:07 left in the contest.
Eagles seniors Austin, Ty Coats, Tyler Jackson, Jesse Gillenwater, Jared Byrge, Tristan Littlejohn, Tony Darling and Drewe Lee ended their careers as state champions in Paonia for the first time in 54 years.
“Growing up here, I played football, my brother played football,” said Lee, whose outstanding play at center this year was matched only by the impressive facial hair he grew since the first practice in August. “We were never able to put it together until this year, and that means the world to me to end my season like this.”
For McRae, who led the Eagles to the golden trophy in his first year as head coach, the title might not have been as big a surprise as everyone thinks.
“In our first meeting with the parents, we told them they’ll have plans all the way to Thanksgiving,” he said. “We put it on the schedule. We told them we’re going to be playing football on the 23rd of November, and then we’re gonna have a Thanksgiving dinner with the trophy in the middle. That was back in August, so it was a self fulfilling prophecy I guess.”