ENGLEWOOD — Loveland’s historically rich football program is heading to its 15th state championship game.
The No. 4-seeded Indians upset top-seed Dakota Ridge 20-14 at Randy Penn Stadium on the campus of Englewood High School on Saturday afternoon in the Class 4A state semifinal.
“We’ve been in dogfights before. It’s nothing new to us,” Loveland senior Zack Rakowsky said moments after the final horn sounded. “Dakota Ridge is a really tough opponent. We knew if we played our kind of football we’d walk out of here with a win.”
Loveland (8-0 record) scored touchdowns on its first three offensive possessions against Dakota Ridge (7-1) to jump out to a 20-7 lead midway through the second quarter. Junior Tyson Williams finished off the opening drive of the game with a 12-yard touchdown run to cap off an 80-yard, 10-play drive.
Following a quick scoring drive by Dakota Ridge that was capped off by a 3-yard touchdown catch by senior Cavica Wilkerson from quarterback Ben Gultig, the Indians answered again with another 80-yard scoring drive.
Loveland sophomore quarterback Garrett Harstad scored from 2 yards out to give the Indians a 13-7 lead.
“Loveland did a good job of running the ball,” Dakota Ridge coach Ron Woitalewicz said. “We couldn’t get a stop in the first half.”
The Eagles had scored on 13 consecutive drives dating back to their state quarterfinal victory a week ago when they went 12-for-12, but Loveland ended that streak forcing Dakota Ridge to punt with just under 8 minutes left in the second quarter.
The next play would be the biggest offensive play of the game for Loveland. Rakowsky took an inside handoff and raced into the end zone for a 73-yard run to extend Loveland’s lead to 20-7.
“The momentum after that you could feel it on our sideline,” Rakowsky said of the longest play from scrimmage of the game. “It was just great blocking. I wasn’t even touched. I thank my offensive line for that.”
Rakowsky carried the offensive load for the Indians with over 20 carries for nearly 200 yards on the ground.
Both defenses found their footing in the second half. In fact, the only score after halftime came on an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown by Dakota Ridge junior Dante Capolungo with 6:40 left in the fourth quarter to cut Loveland’s lead to 20-14.
“I thought it was going out of bounds, but then it took that one hop and from there I knew I was off,” Capolungo said. “I was able to get the touchdown to flip the game and the momentum. We had a chance.”
Dakota Ridge did have a golden opportunity after the Eagles’ defense forced a 3-and-out by Loveland. The Eagles took over on their 41-yard line with 4:21 remaining. However, after getting an initial first-down Dakota Ridge’s drive stalled.
Loveland junior Ian Loomis sacked Gultig on a 4th-down play to give the ball back to the Indians. Loveland managed one more first-down run by Rakowsky and ran out the clock to end the game.
“It is just so thrilling,” Loomis said of his monster sack that ended the Eagles’ final offensive drive. “On fourth downs that is my best time. Fourth downs just get my going and I just go through the line.”
Loomis had a key sack in the third quarter that ended another Dakota Ridge drive.
“I really thought it would be our defense that was going to win this game,” Loomis said. “I think we put them in uncomfortable positions.”
Loveland is now back in a familiar position, play for another state title. The Indians have a 7-7 record in state championship games. Loveland’s last title came just two years ago in 2018 where the Indians defeated Skyline.
Palmer Ridge — a powerhouse in 3A before moving up to 4A this season — will be Loveland’s opponent in the 4A title game next week. The Bears (6-0) defeated Fountain-Fort Carson 28-12 in the other 4A semifinal Saturday afternoon.
“I think we are ready for it,” Loomis said of the upcoming 4A title game against Palmer Ridge. “We were so motivated coming into this game facing the No. 1 team. I think we’ll come in and beat Palmer Ridge.”
The Eagles were trying to head to their first state title game since 2004. Dakota Ridge lost to ThunderRidge 35-29 in the 4A state championship game 16 years ago.
“I’m so proud of these kids because they gave up a lot,” Woitalewicz said. “They sacrificed social time. They all went remote (learning) so they didn’t get quarantined. They didn’t hang out with friends. They really sacrificed so they could have this season. We knew they season would be special.”
Woitalewicz’s 2019 squad came within seconds of advancing to the title game last season. Broomfield defeated Dakota Ridge 17-15 with a last-second field goal at Jeffco Stadium. The crushing defeat has definitely motivated this year’s senior-laden team.
“These seniors were great leaders. They set a high standard for us to come back next year,” Capolungo said of Dakota Ridge’s back-to-back state semifinal appearances. “They showed all us young guys how to be a complete team.”