AURORA -- With just more than eight minutes remaining in the first half Saturday, Valor Christian’s football team found itself in an unfamiliar position.
Cherokee Trail had just pushed its lead to nine points and had the Eagles on their heels, something Valor had not faced since an early September loss to Bingham (Utah). A Christian McCaffrey touchdown run helped the team recover some of its momentum, but it was a big play on defense that truly turned the tide back in the Eagles’ favor.
Cougars quarterback Aric Johnson was sacked by Brandon Biggs and fumbled. David Corral returned the ball 44 yards for the go-ahead score. Valor Christian never relinquished the lead, eventually taking a 42-23 victory in the Class 5A state semifinals at Legacy Stadium.
“The momentum is huge in the game,” Corral said. “We knew coming out on the field we needed to make a play. It just happened to come my way and I’m just glad I made the play for my teammates. We worked so hard for this game.”
The second-seeded Eagles (12-1) advanced to their fifth consecutive championship game where they’ll meet top-seeded Fairview (12-0), which eliminated ThunderRidge 38-28. The teams will play at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver.
Valor Christian won the 3A crown in 2009 and a pair of 4A titles in 2010 and 2011 before claiming its first 5A trophy last season against Cherokee Trail.
“We try not to think about five in a row or anything like that. It’s just the continual process of getting better, improving -- it’s all about the journey,” Eagles coach Rod Sherman said. “For us as coaches and players, what we really talked about is we just wanted to spend another week together.”
Valor needed a fourth-quarter touchdown and field goal to defeat Cherokee Trail 9-0 in the 2012 title game, but both offenses showed up ready to go Saturday. The teams traded touchdowns in the first five minutes of play and combined for 695 yards of offense overall.
McCaffrey carried the ball 28 times for 228 yards and three touchdowns and also returned an interception 45 yards for a late score. Senior quarterback A.J. Cecil passed for 77 yards and added 87 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
“A.J. was able to make a lot of really important plays in the run game,” Sherman said. “That’s what he’s done all year. I still think he was pretty efficient passing-wise, we just got to a point where you’ve got a kid like Christian and a quarterback like A.J., you’ve got to let those guys play a little bit behind our really strong offensive line.”
Johnson led Cherokee Trail with 129 yards passing and 74 more on the ground, rushing for a score and passing for another. Cameron Smith had 89 yards rushing and a score.
“We’re really proud of our guys. We set our goals really high and we tried to accomplish them,” Cougars coach Monte Thelen said. “Today we came up a little short. You’ve got to give Valor a lot of credit.”
Corral’s touchdown sent Valor into halftime with a 21-16 lead and Cecil made it a 12-point advantage with his touchdown run in the third quarter. Cherokee Trail endured four drives in a row without a first down before Johnson found Dominique Grady open for a 9-yard touchdown to make it 28-23.
The Eagles responded by doing what they do best though, churning out a 10-play, 85-yard drive, with all the damage coming on the ground. McCaffrey eventually scored on a 15-yard run.
“Their offensive line is really big and powerful,” Thelen said. “I think as the game went along and even as the drives went along, it proved to be a lot for us to handle.”
Sherman said his team will have to cut down on the penalties and mistakes against Fairview, but added that he was proud how his squad responded to the adversity.
“It was definitely a reality check,” Corral said. “I’m glad we overcame this adversity, and it will really help us for next week, coming out with a really good team against Fairview.
“At the beginning of the season our goal was to get to Sports Authority Field. It’s going to be a great atmosphere. Our team is really excited, and we’re ready.”