Colorado high school football playoffs primer
An autumn chill has descended upon the Front Range and dozens of Colorado high school football teams have turned in their helmets and pads. It’s state playoff time — for everyone but Class 3A — and the brackets are set. Here’s what to watch for with the big schools in Class 5A and 4A:
Cherry Creek: Yes, the Bruins closed out the regular season with a loss to Grandview (24-21). Yes, they are starting a freshman at quarterback (Brady Vodicka). And, yes, there’s a sense 5A is as up for grabs as it’s been in years. All that said, that freshman is pretty darn good, the defense is loaded with FBS talent, and Dave Logan’s squad has won three consecutive 5A titles. Until someone beats the Bruins (8-2) in November or December, they are the favorites.
Valor Christian: Much like Creek, Valor (8-2) was tested in Week 10. Unlike Creek, the No. 2 seed escaped with a 49-35 win after its defense held Mountain Vista to one TD in the second half. A sign of vulnerability? Or indicative of a squad that’s learned how to finish? At least one other piece of evidence — Valor’s 20-7 fourth quarter in a 27-23 come-from-behind victory over Ralston Valley in Week 5 — points to the latter.
Ralston Valley: There is no more accomplished giant killer in 5A than RV. While the Mustangs (8-2) have narrow losses to Creek and Valor, they also have wins over three of the bracket’s top eight seeds in No. 4 Grandview (33-21), No. 6 Columbine (16-13) and No. 7 Regis Jesuit (29-28). To put it another way, the Mustangs are battle tested. Throw in efficient junior QB Logan Madden (1,776 yards, 17 TDs) and reliable targets Josh Rillos (35 receptions, 663 yards) and Jackson Hansen (43-539), and there’s a lot to like.
The Dark Horse
Grandview: A Week 10 stunner over Cherry Creek proved the Wolves (8-2) can beat anyone. But a Week 7 loss to Arapahoe showed what can happen when they aren’t sharp, as Grandview trailed 28-0 at halftime before eventually falling 28-21. Junior QB Liam Szarka (2,232 total yards, 28 TDs passing/rushing) and sophomore RB Donavon Vernon (157 carries, 1,038 yards) form a talented backfield, while DE Mulumba Wa-Kalonji leads a stingy senior-laden defense. When it’s all clicking, the Wolves are dangerous. Honorable mention: No. 6 Columbine, which is 9-1 with a dominant defense (10.4 points allowed/game), but also split its only two games against top 10 competition.
Which first-round team will be the toughest out?
It’s tempting to go with 16th-seeded Fountain Fort-Carson, which just knocked off No. 7 Regis Jesuit. Except the Trojans would draw Cherry Creek in the Round of 16, and that’s a tall order. No. 12 Legacy, which has won eight straight under former Pomona coach Jay Madden, is similarly attractive. But the Lightning also lost its lone meeting with one of the top 10 seeds (10-3 at Arapahoe). That leaves us with the obvious choice — No. 9 ThunderRidge, which has just one loss on its resume (19-7 vs. Valor) and has shown an uncanny knack for producing second-half comebacks. Just ask Arvada West, Mountain Vista, Chatfield and Rock Canyon — all of whom lost to the Grizzlies (9-1) after going into halftime with a lead.
Can a team outside of Denver metro make a run?
As is often the case, all but one of the top eight seeds in the 5A bracket are taken up by teams from the Denver metro. The lone outsider? Fifth-seeded Pine Creek (8-2), which is competing at the 5A level for the first time and must get past Grandview to reach the semifinals. Outside of the Eagles, the two best hopes reside up north with No. 10 Fossil Ridge (8-2) and No. 14 Fairview (9-1). While Fossil Ridge boasts a strong aerial attack that’s produced an average of 33.7 points/game, Fairview is 3-1 against 5A playoff teams, including a 42-26 win over the SaberCats. As always, Tom McCartney’s Knights are lurking.
Will someone other than Valor or Creek reach the final?
If this feels like a familiar question, it’s because it is. Three of the past four 5A title games have featured Cherry Creek vs. Valor Christian. And with those two programs constituting the top two seeds in the bracket, there’s reason to believe we’ll see No. 4 on Dec. 3 at Empower Field. Unlike previous years, however, both head into the playoffs with a loss to a Colorado team on their resume. In fact, both Creek (Grandview in the semifinals) and Valor (Regis Jesuit in the quarterfinals) may have to beat a team it previously lost to prior to the championship game. In other words, buckle up, this could get interesting.
Palmer Ridge: Once a pre-eminent power in 3A, the Bears (10-0) are looking to break through in 4A after losing in the championship and quarterfinals the past two seasons. Palmer Ridge boasts a complete team, with an offense led by dual-threat QB Derek Hester (2,140 total yards) that’s averaging 41.9 points/game and a defense that’s allowed just 45 points combined over its last five games. The Bears have also beaten three of the top eight seeds in the bracket — No. 3 Ponderosa (48-34), No. 5 Montrose (35-28) and No. 8 Vista Ridge (24-17).
Loveland: It’s an even-numbered year, which can only mean one thing: Watch out for the Red Wolves (9-1). Loveland has won each of the last two 4A crowns in even-numbers years (2020 and 2018), and will be a tough out again. Since losing to 5A Fossil Ridge in Week 1, Loveland has destroyed everything in its path, outscoring opponents 410-35. The Red Wolves’ defense has five shutouts, 70 tackles for loss and 21 takeaways, while their ground-and-pound run game is averaging 324.5 yards/tilt. Translation: Whoever survives Loveland will have plenty of bruises to show for it.
Broomfield: After a disappointing 2021 that ended with a first-round playoff exit, head coach Blair Hubbard’s Eagles are back among the 4A elite. While the play of senior QB Cole LaCrue (2,481 total yards, 34 TDs passing/rushing) has a lot to do with that, so, too, does Broomfield’s big-play defense. Broomfield has allowed just 9.9 points/game while amassing 30 takeaways, including seven interceptions from sophomore CB Mikhail Benner.
The Dark Horse
Denver South: The scariest offense in 4A belongs to the sixth-seeded Ravens (9-1), who are averaging 43.8 points/game with QB Joseph Capra (2,472 total yards, 39 TDs passing/rushing) at the controls, fellow seniors Rashad Caldwell (40 receptions, 737 yards) and CJ Morm (34-475) running routes, and junior RB Chevelle Early (115 carries, 803 yards) churning out yards on the ground. If the defense can maintain its edge (18.3 points allowed/game), the Ravens will make a run.
Who will win the rematches?
If the seeds hold to form, the 4A bracket will feature three rematches of league rivals in the quarterfinal round: No. 1 Palmer Ridge vs. No. 8 Vista Ridge, No 2 Broomfield vs. No. 7 Heritage and No. 3 Ponderosa vs. No. 6 Denver South. All but one of the regular-season editions was a down-to-the-wire affair eventually won by the higher seed. The lone exception: South’s 32-17 win over Ponderosa in Week 6 that saw the Ravens race out to a 25-0 lead. It seems more than a little unfair to ask three highly ranked conference champions to beat the same league opponent twice prior to the semifinals. But this is what happens when you put the machines (aka RPI) in charge.
Which first-round team will be the toughest out?
The easy choice would be ninth-seeded Fruita Monument (7-3), which bulldozed No. 5 Montrose 30-14 all the way back in Week 2, and gave top-eight seeds Heritage and Broomfield all they could handle in a pair of seven-point losses. A solid case could also be made for No. 11 Erie (6-4) and future FBS QB Blake Barnett a year removed from their trip to the 4A title game. Instead, we’re going to reach for 12th-seeded Golden (7-3), which is 6-1 since getting blasted by Ponderosa 56-7 in Week 3, including a dramatic 43-42 win over Denver South. With senior QB Jazel Riley IV (2,321 total yards, 29 TDs passing/rushing) taking snaps, the Demons are a threat.
Is the 4A title race as wide open as it seems?
No doubt about it. As impressive as unbeaten top-seed Palmer Ridge has been, the Bears were a fourth-quarter comeback away from losing to No. 8 Vista Ridge in Week 10. Second-seeded Broomfield got scares from Fruita Monument and Heritage on the way to a 10-0 regular season. And, as we already established above, No. 3 Ponderosa got bullied by No. 6 Denver South in a midseason matchup. Bottom line: Don’t be surprised if the 4A bracket gets weird.
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