ARVADA — The 32-team Class 5A football state tournament officially kicked off Thursday night at the North Area Athletic Complex.
Being the only postseason game on the docket, Pomona and Arapahoe had spotlight to provide a memorable opener for the state tournament. The Panthers (8-2 overall), one of the four No. 1 seeds, needed their fourth-string running back Dillon Pace to carry the ball 37 times for 325 yards and a trio of touchdowns for the Panthers to escape with a 36-32 victory against the No. 8 Warriors (4-6).
“It was awesome,” said Pace, who had just eight carries for 35 yards on the season prior to his monster performance Thursday. “I have to owe it all to my o-line. They did great.”
Pomona played without tailbacks Cameron Gonzales, Isaac Marquez and Max Borghi all because of injuries. Those three have combined for more than 1,500 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns on the ground this season.
“We knew he (Pace) was a great defensive player. We didn’t want to have a bunch of guys sit the bench at tailback or just rotating. We made the decision to go with some other guys,” Pomona coach Jay Madden said of Pace who starts on defense. “We knew he could do it. We needed him tonight.”
Neither team led by more than one score the entire game. The lead changed hands seven times. A 14-play, 78-yard drive by Arapahoe capped off by a one-yard touchdown run by junior Nick Thompson provided the Warriors a 32-29 lead with 11:11 left in the fourth quarter.
Pomona answered with a 15-play, 86-yard scoring drive. Pace carried the ball 12 times on the eventual game-winning drive. The junior scored on an eight-yard run with 6:04 left in the fourth quarter to hand the Panthers a 36-32 lead.
Arapahoe had its shot to regain the lead on the ensuing drive. The Warriors drove to midfield, but a key defensive play by Pomona senior defensive lineman Connor Pierson put Arapahoe in a huge down-and-distance hole.
“Senior and four-year starter that is what you expect,” Madden said of Pierson’s key defensive play.
Pierson was able to get pressure on Arapahoe junior quarterback Pete Mitchell after he was flushed out of the pocket on 1st and 10. Mitchell threw the ball away just as Pierson was tackling him, but the officials threw a flag for intentional grounding. The Warriors were backed up after the penalty for a 2nd and 22 play from their own 41-yard line.
“It was a great play call by the coach (Madden),” said Pierson, who also had a fumble recovery that led to a Pomona touchdown in the first half. “He sent blitz inside and I had the outside containment. I was able to do my job and make the play. After they called intentional grounding I knew it was going to be a big play.”
Arapahoe eventually had to punt with less than four minutes to play. The Warriors would never get the ball again as Pace carried the ball seven straight times, picking up a pair of first downs to allow the Panthers to run out the clock.
“We knew it was going to be tough, but we didn’t know it would be this tough,” Madden said.
Mitchell threw for 208 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 95-yard score to senior Taden Jones in the third quarter. Thompson had a pair of short touchdown runs in the Warriors’ season-ending loss.
Arapahoe, third in the 5A South Metro League, needed to 17-14 victory over Smoky Hill last Saturday to even qualify for the state field.
Pomona quarterback Justin Roberts had a pair of key second quarter touchdown strikes to senior Ryan Ward and sophomore Jeremy Gonzales to help keep pace with the Warriors.
Pomona’s second-round game will be next week against the winner of Columbine and Rangeview. The No. 5 seeded Columbine Rebels travel to Aurora Public School Stadium for a 6 p.m. game Friday to play the No. 4 Raiders, 5A South Metro champions.
“We got the win,” Pierson said. “You would like it to look more pretty, but we are playing next week.”