The work that has taken Mancos to the precipice of their program’s first ever football title hasn't come without its challenges.
Friday night’s clash against top-ranked Haxtun may be the toughest all year.
Many Mancos fans are changing their holiday plans, as a convoy of blue and white will converge on the Steel City for one more edition of Friday Night Lights, with their beloved Bluejays taking to the turf of the CSU-Pueblo ThunderBowl on Friday, Nov. 26 at 6 p.m. in the eight-man state title game against Haxtun.
The Jays (11-0) and Bulldogs (12-0) both enter the finale without a blemish on their record, but not without some stern tests in the road to the championship.
No Mancos team had ever played in the state semifinals, let alone the title game. In fact, the Jays have picked up three postseason victories this year, which is one win shy of the total number of postseason wins that the program had during its entire history – combined.
With that perspective, head coach Josh Gardner’s Bluejays have found a way to battle through the postseason grind against programs with rich traditions.
While Mancos dominated the regular season – only Dove Creek finished within five touchdowns of the Bluejays – their offense has had to find some different routes in both their quarterfinal and semifinal victories to keep opponents off-balanced.
Senior Chase Moore, the focal point of the Bluejays offense, put together MVP-caliber numbers again this season, as his rushing totals will likely eclipse 2,000 yards in the title game.
However, in the contests against Dayspring Christian and Sanford, the Bluejays showed their ability to change gears, using over 300 yards passing between the two victories. Junior quarterback Ayden Mathews tossed five touchdowns in the two wins and has demonstrated himself to be one of the most accurate passers in the Four Corners, regardless of classification.
Ultimately, the Bluejays needed the passing game, as their ground attack against Sanford in the state semifinal was held to its lowest total – 140 yards – all season.
The offensive line protected Mathews, led by senior Luika Cova, as the Bluejays front proved their mettle to be able to run block or pass protect. Their ability to hold onto the football, running 10 more plays from scrimmage than the Indians, also kept control of the contest, as the Jays outgained Sanford 338-218 in the win.
On defense, side of the ball, seniors Mason Goodwin and Jesse Henry feasted on opposition ball carriers in their postseason run. Their ability to dictate the point of attack, along with sophomore Cole Dainty-Guilfoyle, has helped the linebackers and defensive backs to come in and clean up. Sophomore Kail Wayman has a knack for being in the right place to generate turnovers, and Mathews anchors a linebacking core that will be tested Friday against Haxtun’s high-octane ground game.
Special teams, with Moore as a dangerous kick returner, have also proven to be a strength for the Jays, as senior Evan Sehnert has shown his capacity to be a threat in the kicking game.
The Plains League has historically been the toughest league in the eight-man classification. Since the turn of the millenium, only five teams from outside the Plains League have won the state title – the most recent coming in 2012 when Hoehne topped the field.
Two of the state titles in that string of domination belong to the Haxtun Bulldogs, who captured state crowns in 2000 and 2004.
Current Haxtun head coach JD Stone played as part of the 2004 title team, and has brought a number of former teammates to his coaching staff to guide a resurgent Haxtun program, making its first state finals appearance since 2005.
In fact, Haxtun hadn’t even made the postseason during the previous three seasons before bursting onto the scene, unseating six-time defending state champion Sedgwick County for a league title.
Now, Haxtun boasts what might be the most prolific offense in the classification. A pair of rushers, Michael Gerk and Isaac Andersen, have both gone well over 1,000 yards rushing, along with over 20 TDs apiece. As a team, Haxtun has rushed for over 4,000 yards, to go along with 800-plus yards passing for senior quarterback Owen Knode.
Knode is a dual threat, with nearly 600 yards on the ground, and has accounted for more than 20 TDs himself, either on the ground or through the air. It’s no wonder, then, that Haxtun averages over 52 points per contest, and will pose a serious challenge for the Bluejays to prepare for.
On the defensive side, Andersen leads the team in takeaways from his linebacking position, averaging 11 tackles per game, while freshman Grant Statz has emerged as one of the best defensive players in the state. Senior Ozzy Coss leads a dangerous defensive front for the Bulldogs, which has combined for over 30 sacks this season.
Haxtun and Mancos have a two common opponents – Dayspring Christian and Merino – who Haxtun defeated 26-6 and 64-20, respectively, in the middle of the season. The Bluejays knocked off Dayspring 33-24 in the state semifinal, and topped Merino 49-8 in early September.
Much like Mancos, Haxtun was seldom tested during the regular season, with its closest margin of victory coming in the victory over Dayspring Christian. The playoffs have been tougher, however, as both Akron and Holly gave the Bulldogs some resistance, before Haxtun pulled away to win 42-24 over Akron and 46-26 over Holly.
While Mancos will be making its state championship debut, Haxtun enters its 11th state title game, having compiled a record of 7-3 in their previous 10 trips.
Mancos and Haxtun are meeting for the first time in the postseason.
Fans across the Four Corners can listen the contest on 98.7 KRTZ, with the broadcast also available through their online platforms, both through krtzradio.com and the KRTZ On-the-Go mobile app. Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 26 under the lights at CSU-Pueblo’s ThunderBowl.