Before the season started, Dove Creek head coach Shane Baughman knew his Bulldogs had all the pieces to construct something never before seen in Dolores County.
The state title game was their masterpiece.
For the first time in program history, Dove Creek football can call themselves state champions, as the Bulldogs built an early lead, then held off Simla down the stretch to capture a 26-21 victory in the 8-man title game.
Dove Creek, as they have all season long, dominated the line of scrimmage against the previously unbeaten Cubs, rushing for over 300 yards in a well-balanced ground clinic.
Junior Gage Buffington tallied two of the four Bulldog touchdowns, earning the contest’s Most Outstanding Player award. It was, however, a complete game performance for the ‘Dogs, who used three huge defensive stops in the first half to swing the momentum into the camp of a well-traveled Dove Creek sideline.
A significant portion of the Dove Creek community thundered their approval all night long from the bleachers of the CSU-Pueblo Thunderbowl, celebrating each crunching hit and explosive play. Their voices reverberated with those of hundreds more who listened from afar on their radios, lifting the ‘Dogs to a level never before achieved by the storied program.
As the celebration spilled over onto the field, Baughman and the Bulldogs let the emotion sink in, the coach drenched with an ice bath that was four years in the making.
Seven seniors took to the field for the final time on a mission, looking to reverse the years of close-calls and near-misses. Leading an upperclassmen-heavy roster, Dove Creek responded to an early turnover unshaken, and began their steady submission of the Cubs.
After throwing an interception on their first pass attempt of the night, Dove Creek responded with a stop of a grinding Simla offense, stuffing sophomore standout TJ Eurich on a third-down run at the DC eight-yard line, before Simla missed a field goal.
Then, on the very next play, DC hit the big strike that makes the Bulldogs so tough to contain – Buffington followed behind seniors Dustin Glover and Audric Chadd around the left end outracing a defensive back to the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown run.
“All year long we’ve run into big teams on the front line,” said Chadd of his team’s ability to control the line of scrimmage, “but we made up for it with speed and aggression – I felt like we were able to do that today.”
“The line was where the game really changed,” said Buffington of his big day on the ground, churning out 129 yards before the night was through, “they were creating all the holes that allowed to get five yards a carry.”
In spite of a failed two-point conversion, Dove Creek’s bench pulsated with energy, and their defense fed off the quick swing in the game. Simla sophomore quarterback Caston Cox broke through for a couple of big runs on the ensuing drive, but Dove Creek stymied the Cubs on fourth-and-short, thanks to a stonewalling hit by Glover against Simla senior running back Brayden Glover in the open field.
Starting at their own 30, Dove Creek’s offense started to find their rhythm in a decisive six-minute stretch. The ‘Dogs used a balanced but quick sequence of carries from multiple rushers, including junior Taber Dejane, worked the ball into the red zone for the first time.
Senior Kendall Gardner, along with a productive night harassing the Simla quarterback, followed behind a convoy of Bulldogs to the end zone from four yards to build a 12-0 lead. Senior quarterback Kade Hankins added the conversion, and the No. 2 seeded Bulldogs could start to sense that they had the upper hand.
Another stop at allowed the Bulldogs to set up shop near midfield, and they struck again quickly with their first big play through the air. Hankins connected with Buffington for a pinpoint 29-yard strike to
the corner of the end zone, and suddenly, DC held a 20-0 edge with two minutes to go before halftime.
Senior Cole Taber collected a big interception to stunt a Simla threat right before halftime, and Dove Creek stormed into the locker room with three score advantage.
It might have been easy to succumb to the nerves of the big stadium atmosphere, but the Bulldogs kept their cool, and clearly had settled in.
“There were definitely moments where you look up and realize you’re in the state championship game,” said Hankins of the giant Jumbotron screen at the stadium’s north end, showing replays of DC touchdowns, “but between the loudspeakers and the fans, it was hard to hear anything on the field – but we worked through it. It’ll be something I won’t forget for the rest of my life.”
Simla showed some fight to start the second half, churning out a seven-minute, 70-yard drive to start the second half capped with a one-yard run from Eurich. When it looked like the Cubs would get right back into the game after forcing a DC punt, the ‘Dogs defense answered back.
Three consecutive sacks of Cox pinned the Cubs inside their own five-yard line, as junior Tyson Beanland owned the Simla backfield all night. Junior Mike Coffey joined the sack party, giving the Bulldogs great field position after a fine Taber punt return.
From there, the Bulldogs looked to put the game out of reach, driving deep into Cub territory as the third quarter expired. A couple plays into the fourth quarter, Hankins found the end zone for his 21st rushing score of the season, pushing the lead back to three scores, 26-6.
Chadd recovered a fumble on the next Simla drive, as the Bulldogs played keep-away from Simla. The Cubs, made things interesting late, however, scoring with a minute to go, then recovering an on-side kick and scoring again – two touchdowns in a span of forty seconds, to close to within five.
With one final gasp, the Cubs tried one more on-side kick, but Dove Creek sophomore Sheldon Gardner collected it, fell to the turf, and the Bulldog bench erupted in celebration for their unprecedented achievement.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said a jubilant Chadd in the ensuing celebration at midfield, “we’ve been working for this since we were three feet tall. Everyone said that this was going to be the group that won it all – and we really did it – it’s unreal.”
Both Buffington and Hankins broke the century-mark on the ground, a reflection of the offensive line domination, as the Bulldogs soaked in the limelight in the biggest games of their careers.
“This has been long-awaited for the town of Dove Creek,” said Hankins, “it’s been years in the making.”
Seven seniors played their final game for the Bulldogs, and got to ride off into the sunset with the victory.
In a special season for southwest Colorado football programs, Dove Creek now owns only the third ever 8-man title won by a team west of I-25, and the first football championship by a program from either Dolores or Montezuma county.
“It’s been an unforgettable season,” reflected Buffington on an incredible campaign, “it’s been full of so many incredible moments – this just tops it all off.”
Surrounded by generations of Dove Creek family, friends, and fans, the Bulldogs walked off the field in Pueblo all smiles, sharing a moment that will live in the lore of Dove Creek athletics for countless years to come.
“I just want to thank all of the coaches who worked with these kids along the way – the peewee coaches, the middle school coaches - along with the parents – they really raised these kids right,” shared Baughman in the celebration, “they’re high-character kids, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”