Ten years ago, this Dove Creek class believed that when they got to high school, they could do something special.
Make that something unprecedented.
For the first time in a storied program’s decades of football, the Dove Creek Bulldogs will play for a state title, advancing to the eight-man championship game with an emphatic 44-14 victory over rival Mancos.
In front of a whole town of support, head coach Shane Baughman’s Bulldogs soaked in the moment after the clock hit triple-zeroes, as family and friends flooded the Soper Sports Complex field to celebrate the historic achievement.
Now, after no area eight-man program had ever stepped on to the state title game prior to last year, southwest Colorado is sending their second representative in as many years to play at the Thunderbowl on the campus of CSU-Pueblo this upcoming Friday, Nov. 25 at 6 p.m.
Suffice to say that this day-after-Thanksgiving, the Bulldogs will still have plenty of be grateful for.
After slugfests in their last four encounters with Mancos, with each team taking two in the series, both teams entered the contest knowing that physicality would play a prominent role in deciding a victor.
Advantage, Dove Creek.
The Bulldogs controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the game against the No. 3 seed Bluejays, rushing for over 300 yards as a team behind sturdy blocking from the offensive line of seniors Audric Chadd, Gaige Cressler, and Dustin Glover, as well as juniors Tyson Beanland and Mike Coffey.
“Our line was doing a great job getting push up the middle,” said senior quarterback Kade Hankins, “and that just opened up the field so much.”
After stopping Mancos on the game’s first possession, Dove Creek took a bit of good fortune to open the scoring. On a fourth-and-seven in Mancos territory, Bulldogs captain Hankins lofted a pass to the back of the end zone, where a cluster of Bulldogs receivers and Bluejay defenders converged on the jump ball.
Junior receiver Taber Dejane ripped the ball away from his own teammate, senior Kendall Gardner, unaware in the moment that the two Bulldog teammates were tussling for the same catch.
From there, the ‘Dogs limited the vaunted Bluejays attack, looking to keep juniors Kail Wayman and Levi Martin in check. The Bluejays punted the ball on their subsequent possessions, and Dove Creek started to build up a head of steam on the ground.
“We’ve been wanting this our whole lives,” said senior Bulldogs linebacker Quaden Huffaker, “and so we’ve been training really hard to get to this point.”
The Jays had kept Gardner and junior Gage Buffington under wraps in their first meeting during the regular season, but this time, the multipronged Bulldogs rushing attack started to find gaps in the defense.
“We were amped up today,” said Gardner, “and the O-line did a great job, and we were able to follow their blocks all day.”
Hankins, after having been limited in the first quarter to under 20 yards rushing, finally broke free in the second – escaping around the left end, fighting off a Bluejays defender along the sideline, and staying in bounds to double the home team’s advantage midway through the second quarter, with DC up 12-0.
The Bluejays comeback took a hit when the ensuing Mancos drive resulted in a fumble at midfield, giving the Bulldogs their first of four takeaways on the afternoon.
Dove Creek wasted no time returning to the punishing ground game to efficiently move the ball downfield, before Gardner broke loose from 25 yards, giving DC a 20-0 lead.
Then, right before half, Gardner came up with an interception on a swing pass near midfield, returning it deep into Mancos territory. The Bulldogs cashed in on the very next play, as Hankins connected with Buffington from 25 yards, building a stunning 28-0 lead heading in to the locker room.
Mancos opened the second half with a jolt, recovering an onside kick, before producing their most effective drive of the day. Senior quarterback Ayden Mathews took to the ground, churning out hard-earned yards to put the Jays in a goal-to-go situation. The signal-caller dialed up his own number, leaning in from a yard out to get Mancos on the board and the visiting fans back in the game.
The momentum, however, was short-lived.
Dove Creek responded with a 90-second drive on a short field, scoring on another slash-and-dash from Gardner, and the Bulldogs restored their fourscore lead, 36-8.
Another Mancos turnover, followed immediately by a highlight-reel run from senior Cole Taber – where the senior broke four tackles on his way to the end zone from 45 yards out – allowed the home crowd to start to celebrate, with the ‘Dogs out in front 44-8.
“We focused on the fundamentals,” said Taber, of his team’s plus-four turnover margin, “we knew that if we took care of those, we’d be able to win the game.”
Mathews connected on a fantastic strike to junior Andrew Jaime from 35 yards to give the Bluejays a glimmer of hope, but Dove Creek extinguished any visions that the Jays would get any closer after their third fumble recovery of the game sealed the win.
Dove Creek was led by Hankins’ 114 yards rushing, to go along with two passing scores. Gardner added 86 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Buffington rushed for 82 yards and collected a receiving touchdown.
The ‘Dogs limited Mancos to less than 250 yards of total offense, as Mathews served as the Bluejays’ leading rusher with 51 yards, while throwing for 110 yards. Martin added 47 yards on the ground for the Jays.
“The defensive line did a great job hitting them hard,” said Huffaker, “and it allowed the linebackers to fill in their gaps and shut them down.”
“We played on their side of the ball a lot,” added Gardner, “and we were swarming on every snap.”
The journey for Dove Creek continues into the state title game, where the ‘Dogs will face No. 4 Simla (12-0), who provided one of the big surprises of the weekend with a 27-20 upset of defending state champion Haxtun. The Cubs won League 3, and have beaten the three ‘H’s through the first three postseason weeks – Hayden (48-0), Holly (31-22), and Haxtun, to advance to the championship game.
“We had the whole town with us on our backs – and they’ve been there for us ever since we were at the peewee level,” said Hankins of the tremendous community support, “and we proved that we belong in the state championship game.”
“This team set their goals high at the beginning of the year,” said Baughman, “and I couldn’t be prouder of this group.”
Dove Creek’s Friday night bout against Simla will be broadcast, beginning at 5:30 p.m., on local radio station 98.7 FM KRTZ, and available online at krtzradio.com. Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. from the Steel City, with the state title on the line, as the Cubs seek their sixth state title in football, while Dove Creek looks to win their first in their maiden appearance.
“Being able to do this for the first time in Dove Creek history,” reflected Taber, “it’s the best feeling in the world.”