COLORADO SPRINGS — The last time the Pueblo East Eagles and Discovery Canyon Thunder played each other at District 20 Stadium, the Thunder had a really bad day. They entered the 3A state bracket as the top ranked team and a favorite to win a state championship. Pueblo East didn't care about favorites or rankings and drubbed the Thunder 47-13.
So the Thunder's 37-21 victory Friday went a long way in restoring confidence in their ability to compete at a high level and chase a state championship.
The match-up was a meeting between two teams sitting the CHSAANow.com Top 10 for this week, and when the final horn sounded, the crowed had been treated to an exciting, hard fought football game.
"(Pueblo East) is a good football game and we knew that," Thunder coach Shawn Mitchell said. "We know they're going to be well-coached, we know they're going to do things right and that this was going to be a a dog fight and we knew it."
The Thunder (4-0) defense took a bend but don't break approach with the first series of the game. They allowed East quarterback Daniel Martin to convert a 4th and 1 in Thunder territory before halting their momentum and forcing a punt.
Their offense however found their groove early. Running back Spencer Chambers broke a 44-yard run deep into Eagles territory. Quarterback Andrew Hall soon took advantage and threw a beautiful pass over the shoulder of wide receiver Alexis Sotomayor who hauled it in for a 24-yard touchdown reception. One offensive series into the game, the Thunder were rolling with a 7-0 lead.
But the Eagles (3-2) refused to let Discovery Canyon off the hook so easily. On the ensuing drive, a 21-yard pass from Martin to receiver Kevin Ribarich have the Eagles 1st and goal at the one-yard line. The Thunder nearly held up on a goal line stand, but Martin snuck in on 3rd down to tie the game as the first quarter ended.
The Thunder defense stepped up in the second quarter and got off the field thanks a couple of key plays by linebacker Dylan Draper. The Eagles had forced a fumble and recovered the ball in Thunder territory. On 4th down, the Eagles found themselves in No Man's Land and opted to go for it and try to capitalize on the turnover. Draper dropped back into coverage and defended a pass that looked like it would be completed for the first down.
"That's the way he's been playing, really for the last two years," Mitchell said. "He came on last year as a junior and has been improving every week this year and we expect a lot from."
But offensively for the Thunder it was Chambers that made the difference. He took a 41-yard run for a touchdown in the closing minutes of the first half. On three carries in the half, Chambers rushed for 85 of his 144 yards. That touchdown run gave the Thunder a 14-7 lead at the half and held all the momentum.
"The guys who needed to make their blocks made their blocks on the plays where I got the ball," Chambers said. "Some holes opened up for me nicely and it's all the guys up front in the trenches that do all the work."
Chambers kept the ball rolling as he added a 39-yard touchdown run on the first Thunder drive of the second half to give Discovery Canyon a 21-7. But the Eagles refused to go quietly. Needing to make something happen, Martin threw a deep ball intended for Ribarich, who came down with it and shook Thunder cornerback Sterling Watkins to get into the endzone.
Lightning struck again for Ribarich as he followed his touchdown reception up with a pick-six on the ensuing drive. In the blink of an eye, the Eagles had tied the game at 21 points.
"Kevin's a special football player, he has great awareness on the field," Eagles coach David Ramirez said. "He's one of those guys we look to when we need a big play and he delivered today and we did some good things but we didn't capitalize on that momentum."
East nearly took control on the game as Martin intercepted Hall, but the Eagles were flagged for roughing the passer on the play. Hall took his team down to the goal line and pushed in on a quarterback sneak to give the the Thunder a 27-21 lead.
The Eagles couldn't respond on offense and were forced to punt back to Discovery Canyon who continued to grind the ground game and chew up the remaining time on the clock to walk away with the win.
"I think were trying to force some things at the end of the game," Ramirez said. "And we ultimately just ran out of time, I think our defense did some good things at times, but we gave up a big play when we needed a stop."
The Thunder will play one more non-league game before jumping into their 3A Southern League schedule. They'll take on Rampart next week at District 20 Stadium. The Eagles are in the same position as they take on in-city rival Pueblo West before starting play in the 3A South Central League.