Paonia football withstands late rally to claim second straight 1A state crown

Paonia football players pose with the 1A football championship trophy. (Brian Miller/CHSAANow.com)

Paonia football players pose with the 1A football championship trophy. (Brian Miller/CHSAANow.com)

PAONIA — Even after executing its gameplan to near-perfection Saturday afternoon, Paonia's football team still had to hold its collective breath in the final minutes of the Class 1A state championship game.

The Eagles led by three touchdowns  in the fourth quarter, but a late Buena Vista score — followed by the recovery of an onside kick — made things interesting.

The Demons were one yard away from cutting into the deficit again, but on fourth down quarterback Keegan Wentz was wrapped up by Eagles junior lineman Willy Darling and thrown for a loss. Paonia was able to run out the clock and celebrate a 21-7 triumph at Paonia Town Park, securing a second consecutive 1A state title in the process.

"It felt good to stop him," Darling said. "It felt good to help my team."

Paonia (13-0) upped its winning streak to 23 games and ended Buena Vista's season in heartache for the second year in a row. The Eagles also downed the Demons (12-1) in the state semifinals last fall on their way to the championship.

"It feels great to show our town we've still got it and we can do it," Paonia junior Taylor Walters said. "A small town can still do this and win two in a row."

Walters capped a brilliant junior season with another strong performance Saturday, rushing for 126 yards and a touchdown and tossing a 62-yard touchdown pass to Logan Schoop.

After being held in check for the much of the first half with only 27 yards, Walters methodically wore down the Buena Vista defense in the second half with a ball-control offense that kept Wentz off the field.

"It was as much time as I could take off, that was my job," Walters said. "I'd let the ref count it out until I had to snap it."

After Walters scored from two yards out to make it 21-0, Buena Vista put together an impressive 12-play, 80-yard drive. One play after losing nine yards on a sack, Wentz found Trevor Close for a 14-yard touchdown pass to put the Demons on the board.

Zakk James recovered the ensuing onside attempt, and Buena Vista again moved the ball efficiently. On fourth-and-goal at the 1 though, Wentz attempted a fake before turning around and trying to drive forward into the end zone. Instead he ended up in the arms of Darling.

"That's the d-line for you. That's coach Don Holt for you," Paonia coach Brent McRae said. "That's our kids, that's the town of Paonia for you. When the going gets tough, they rise up."

Wentz finished the day with 86 yards through the air and the touchdown, adding 68 yards on the ground. The junior mirrors Walters with his dual-threat capability and was a handful for opposing defenses all season long.

"He's strong," Walters said. "He's going to go somewhere and play probably, because he's a great athlete. They want him to have the ball in his hands because he can make plays."

Close rushed for 61 yards and caught three passes for 36 yards. Mark Harding added three catches for 35 yards.

Paonia took control early in the first half after denying Buena Vista on a fourth-down play on the opening drive. The Eagles needed only five plays to go 60 yards, with Jeremiah Hillman scoring from two yards out. Hillman had a 30-yard run early in the drive and finished the game with 92 yards on the ground.

Walters made it 14-0 on the next possession, lofting a ball down the field to Schoop, who bobbled it briefly before gaining control and sprinting into the end zone.

"I faked it to my running back, and he stays low so they don't know if he has the ball," Walters said. "The safety came up. My timing was really good. I threw it a little low, but he caught it."

A Paonia turnover nearly allowed Buena Vista to make it a one-score game at the half. The Demons' 13-play drive went for naught though as Wentz was stopped again at the 1 on fourth down.

It was simply that kind of day for Paonia, which wasn't about to be denied a repeat.

"All we do is enjoy every week. We enjoy every practice together and we enjoy every game we get to play," McRae said. "That was our motto all year. At the beginning of the year you're guaranteed nine games - that's all you get. You earn everything after that."

While it may be a bit early to start thinking about a three-peat, Walters said it would be nice to savor two in a row.

"It's going to be great to enjoy this one. Last year, that one was for the town," Walters said. "Now this one is ours."