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Mancos Bluejays beat Sanford to advance to the state final

The Mancos sideline erupts to cheer for their teammates as the Bluejays score a touchdown in the third quarter.
Mancos leans on air attack, defense in 26-16 victory

Brotherhood.

It's a word that's been the mantra of Mancos football.

Now, for the first time in school history, this band of brothers will be playing for a state title.

In a matchup of hard-hitting, run-heavy offenses, Mancos used staunch defense and its best aerial attack of the season to fly past Sanford 26-16 and advance to their first-ever state championship game.

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The meeting had all the elements you could want in a state semifinal. Full-fledged rivalry game. Star-studded rosters. Rematch of 2020's playoff quarterfinal. Packed stadium at Mancos Field.

Mancos dominated the regular season edition, pulverizing the Indians with more than 400 yards rushing in a 60-24 rout. Everyone on the field knew, however, that Sanford wasn’t at full strength in that contest, with the defending state player of the year, Sanford’s Kelton Gartrell, unable to play.

The crowd cheers as their Bluejays score a touchdown Saturday afternoon on their way to a 26-16 victory. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
The Mancos defense tackles a Sanford runner for a loss Saturday. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Chase Moore intercepts a Sanford pass Saturday afternoon. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Kail Wayman catches a pass and heads for the end zone to score the first touchdown for Mancos Saturday. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Kruis Wagoner catches a pass and leaves the defender on the ground as he runs into the end zone. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Kruiz Wagoner celebrates one of his two touchdowns Saturday in the state semi-final game. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Lane Greenlee celebrates after intercepting a Sanford pass Saturday in the state semi-final game. (Sam Green/Special to The Journal)
Coach Josh Gardner tells his team how proud he is of them after defeating Sanford and earning a place in the state playoff game.
The Mancos Bluejays celebrate their 26-16 victory over Sanford in the semifinals game of the state eight-man football tournament Saturday in Mancos.

While Mancos (11-0) had been steadily dominant through their unbeaten regular season, the Indians (8-5) picked up steam with Gartrell’s return right before the postseason. In its opening playoff victories, Sanford looked like a totally different team than the one that Mancos pasted on Oct. 15.

When the playoff bracket placed the Mountain League rivals with a potential collision course in the semifinals, it seemed like destiny that they would meet.

So, under perfect conditions for a late November clash, the Bluejays and Indians converged on Mancos Field with a trip to Pueblo on the line.

After trading punts in the opening possessions, the early tone was set – everything would be difficult, and points would be hard-earned. Both Mancos senior Chase Moore and Gartrell, a pair of players accustomed to big plays, found the yards hard to come by in the early going.

Sanford took over at midfield for its second possession, and the visitors provided the first big play in a contest full of momentum swings. Gartrell broke through the heart of the Mancos line and raced 50 yards for the game’s opening score. After the two-point conversion, Sanford’s black-and-green-clad sideline had landed the first punch of the heavyweight fight and was up 8-0.

Time for a response.

Mancos produced one of its most effective drives of the season, and a huge one to swing momentum back in their favor, on their ensuing possession. The Jays started the drive at their own 38-yard line, and in the course of their grind down the field, converted two fourth downs, while chewing up almost six minutes off the clock.

Sophomore Kail Wayman was the recipient on one of the fourth down conversions, collecting a pass from junior Ayden Mathews to get nine yards on fourth-and-six. Then, on the 15th play of the drive, the duo connected again, as Wayman slipped in behind the secondary and reeled in a 12 yard touchdown. Mathews ran in the conversion to knot the score at 8, bringing the packed home stands to their feet.

Injected with confidence, the Bluejays defense continued to build on the shift, chasing Sanford senior quarterback Josh Holman all over the field. After forcing the Indians to commit a pair of penalties in an attempt to keep Holman upright, the visitors faced a long third down. With Sanford dialing up a halfback pass, the Jays were ready in coverage to intercept the ball and take over at their own 17-yard line.

Their first three drives had shown that the passing game would be more effective than the ground attack, so head coach Josh Gardner's squad switched gears to look like a West Coast offense. Mathews put on a clinic as the Jays marched down the field, connecting with Wayman for big chunks to take the ball into Sanford territory. After a couple of run plays forced the Jays into a third down, the Jays used a tight formation to draw in the Sanford secondary, before slipping Wayman in behind the defense. Mathews caught him in stride, and Wayman outraced the pursuit for a 32-yard score.

With its first lead of the game, it looked like Mancos might be able to get some breathing room right before halftime, snuffing out a Sanford fake punt, but the Jays coughed it up just a couple of plays later on a fumble.

However, Sanford would give it right back, as Holman couldn’t handle a high snap with Sanford in Mancos territory, and Bluejays senior Mason Goodwin scooped it up to set up a late field goal try for senior Evan Sehnert. His 44-yard attempt clanged off the left upright as time expired in the first half, and the Jays settled for a 14-8 lead at the intermission.

Sanford would receive the opening kickoff to the second half, but its first possession would be short-lived – Mancos sophomore Chris Medina recovered a fumble on an ill-advised pitch by Holman, and the Jays would have excellent field position for their first chance in the third quarter.

After a penalty pushed them back to their own side of midfield, wiping off a potential passing touchdown in the process, the Jays went right back to the air, as senior Kruiz Wagoner broke in between a pair of Sanford defensive backs, caught a frozen rope from Mathews, and broke free for a 55-yard score.

Sanford, short of a few big plays by Gartrell, couldn’t do much on offense, and the Bluejays once again made them pay. Under the pressure of freshman Kaiden Wyatt and senior Jesse Henry, Holman threw into traffic, and Wayman stepped in front of the pass for the fourth Bluejays takeaway of the contest.

The Jays would trade punts with Sanford, but would get the ball back in good field position after a fine punt return by Moore.

Sensing that they could possibly put the game away, Mathews and Wagoner connected again, on perhaps the most pinpoint throw of the day for the junior signal caller. Wagoner stepped out of a tackle, and 40 yards later, the Jays owned a three-score lead.

Heading into the fourth quarter, the two teams added two more turnovers, with Henry collecting a fumble before Mancos gave the ball back a play later.

Mancos watched the time slowly ebb off the clock, holding a 26-8 advantage, before Sanford produced a scoring drive.

Gartrell proved why he is one of the most elusive players in the classification, nearly singlehandedly pulling the Indians back into the game. He caught a trio of passes as the visitors marched 80 yards in less than two minutes, the final of which would make the highlight reel as the Indian broke several tackles en route to a 27-yard score.

Still up 26-16, the Jays would have the clock on their side, though, and a four minute drive kept the ball away from Sanford before turning it over on downs.

Junior Lane Greenlee would all but ice the game with the sixth takeaway in the contest, an interception of Holman, with under five minutes remaining. Fittingly, the Jays got one more chance to bring down Gartrell on his final offensive play of his career – Henry being one of several white helmets there to make the emphatic stop – ending Sanford's last gasp drive on downs to spark the celebrations.

“We're elated,” said Gardner, after his team sealed up the historic win. “The boys are excited, and they’ve deserved this opportunity based on how hard they've worked all year.”

Mathews finished his career day 9-for-13 through the air for 198 yards and four touchdowns. Moore tallied 90 yards on the ground on 20 carries.

“It’s the best feeling,”said Moore, even on a day when he was kept out of the end zone. “We put in the work all off-season, and it's all come together for us.”

The Bluejays limited Gartrell to 101 yards on the ground and 103 yards receiving, a monumental feat against the talented senior.

Much of that success in bottling up the Indian offense came from a collective defensive effort. “The defensive front did a good job staying disciplined,” said Gardner. “We know how dangerous their players are, so we focused on squeezing the play back to the middle.”

One of the standouts from the D-line, Jesse Henry credited his teammates for the unprecedented achievement. “We've got a special group,” said Henry, “and we've been able to play for each other all season.”

A full stadium made for a raucous atmosphere, and Gardner credited the community for playing a part in the victory. “Our crowd was loud,” added the head coach, “and the kids were able to feed off of that energy to pull this one out.”

For the second consecutive year, a representative of the Mountain League will play a Plains League opponent in the ThunderBowl on the campus of CSU-Pueblo in the state title game. Last year, Sanford fell to Sedgwick County, 72-32, in the championship matchup.

Mancos will face Plains League champion Haxtun in the title bout, as the Bulldogs knocked off Holly, 46-26, in the other semifinal.

After four years of playoff teams, the 11 Bluejays seniors have already set a new bar for Mancos football. “Now it's our time to show what we can do at state,” said Moore. “We've got one goal, and we’re one step closer to achieving it.”

The title game is slated for a 6 p.m. kickoff from Pueblo on Friday, Nov. 26, played in the Neta and Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl on Pueblo's northeast side. While a large contingent of blue and white faithful will make the trip to Pueblo, residents in the Four Corners region can listen to all the action on local radio station 98.7 KRTZ, as the Bluejays try to bring home their first-ever state title in football.

Henry summed up the ambitions of the Bluejays as they turn their focus to the Bulldogs in the championship. “We're looking to go get one more.”

This article will be updated with photos and a full report at the-journal.com.