DENVER — On a cold winter day at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Valor Christian reestablished their spot atop the high school football rankings in Colorado by avenging their only loss to a team within the state this season.
The Eagles (12-2 overall) downed the Pomona Panthers (10-4) by a final score of 29-26 in a rematch of the very first game of the season, in which the Panthers upset the then-No. 1 ranked Eagles 28-14.
Only this time, the Class 5A state championship was at stake.
Things were tough for Valor all game long, as they’d need a fumble with under three minutes to go in order to orchestrate the game-winning drive.
“I thought we left a lot of yards on the field today,” said Valor head coach Rod Sherman. “We’d get a penalty here, a negative play there. We didn’t feel like we didn’t have plays we could call, we were just missing little things throughout the game.”
Things got off to a fast start for the Panthers, who utilized their seldom-used passing attack to drive down to a 7-0 lead on the first possession of the game after facing 10 men in the box from Valor on defense. The drive was capped by a rollout pass from Ryan Marquez to Elijah Leyva in the back of the endzone.
But, it was Pomona’s defense that stole the show in the first quarter, stopping the vaunted Eagles offense first on a 4th and short on Valor’s opening possession, then sacking Dylan McCaffrey for a safety on the Eagles’ second possession of the game.
The lull in offense was short-lived for the Eagles however, as they would take most of the second quarter orchestrating a drive that would bring them within two of the Panthers, capped by a McCaffrey sneak into the endzone for Valor’s first points of the game with 4:29 to go until half.
Pomona wasn’t done themselves in the first half though. After a converted fake punt by Max Borghi, the Pomona running back then threw a halfback pass 28 yards to Masavik Dominguez to extend the Panthers’ lead to 16-7.
“They were able to run the ball a little better than we expected,” Pomona head coach Jay Madden said after the game. “But we were really able to weather it and force them out of their rhythm.”
A missed field goal from 49 yards opened the second half for Valor, and from there Max Borghi sprang for a 50-plus yard run, setting up a field goal for the Panthers to make it 19-7. The Eagles, determined not to lose the quarter, answered with another sustained drive finished with a four-yard touchdown run by Joshia Davis.
With the fourth quarter underway, the Panthers got back to the roots of their offense, pounding the ball inside in a effort to run clock. Borghi once again was front and center for Pomona as they grinded their way down into the endzone with under nine minutes to play to extend the lead to 26-14.
As Valor tried to mount a comeback down by two scores, the Eagles were able to drive but struggled to pick up big chunks of yardage against the stingy Panthers defense. By the time McCaffrey threw a touchdown pass to Ben Waters to make it 26-21, time would be a factor the rest of the way.
“We’ve been here before,” said Waters after the game. “Don’t get me wrong, heading into the fourth quarter we knew we had to step up and be a little more desperate, but we execute these plays in practice every day. We had to remember to keep it simple.”
When Pomona got the ball back, a heavy dose of Max Borghi was in order, but the workhorse running back fumbled the ball away at midfield after a gaining a first down, giving the Eagles new life.
For McCaffrey and Waters, that was all the opening they needed. Waters rumbled over 40 yards down to the four yard line before Davis punched it home to give Valor the 29-26 lead after the two point conversion.
“I knew I was getting the ball on the play,” Waters said. “I looked over at my coach and he said ‘you gotta lock it up,’ so that was my main focus but when the extra yards were there I knew I was going to take it all the way.”
For Pomona, the loss was their fifth in a state championship game, with their lone victory coming in 1988 over Montbello.
“I’m in shock,” Madden said. “They’re a tough team, and they have great players, but we were in position to win.”
“Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way.”
For the Eagles, who lost in last year’s state title game to Cherry Creek, it was a return to the status of champions for the sixth time in seven years, and their third title at 5A.
“In our program, we don’t want to focus too much on peaks and valleys,” Sherman said. “We lost a close game like this last year and tried not to be too devastated about it, and this year we’ll try not to be too over the moon. It’s about the time we’ve gotten together as a team, and we thank God, specifically for that.”
But for seniors, like Waters, this was the cap on the experience of a lifetime.
“It’s been so different than any team I’ve ever played on,” Waters said. “As a senior you try to take more ownership in the team, and I think we did that this year. The result has been the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”