The Paonia Eagles are Class 1A State Champions in football after beating out Centauri 32-24 on Saturday at Paonia Town Park.
The Paonia Eagles football team experienced transformation this season, going from an average team with an average record in 2012, to hosting the Class 1A championship game on Saturday.
The Eagles posted a 10-game winning streak on their way to a 12-1 ecord, upsetting rivals Hotchkiss and the defending state champion Cedaredge Bruins along the way. In the state semifinal game, Paonia trounced the #1 ranked Buena Vista Demons.
On Saturday, as if to tie the season up with a bow, Paonia defeated the one team they lost to this season, Centauri, to claim the title.
The estimated 1,500 people who came to watch witnessed a true, hard-hitting championship game, with the outcome not apparent until the final snap of the ball.
The Eagles knew they needed to stop quarterback KC Jarvies, who threw two touchdown passes against Paonia in their first meeting. And they needed to contain senior running back Jason Buhr wearing the #3 jersey.
Even the Paonia crowd knew Buhr was a threat.
The first quarter was a back-and-forth battle. Paonia stopped the Falcons on their opening drive. Then Eagles sophomore quarterback Taylor Walters threw an interception on the opening play, and Centauri went ahead on a 30-yard pass from Jarvies to Buhr.
On the ensuing drive, senior Will Austin scored on a one-yard run to tie the game at 6 points.
Jarvies answered with another scoring pass to Buhr to lead, 12-6, at the end of the first quarter.
With three minutes remaining in the half, Walters, playing on defense, picked off a Jarvies pass at mid-field and ran back for the score. Place kicker Colby Simpson kicked the go-ahead field goal. With a minute remaining in the half, Walters connected on a 40-yard pass to Josh Altman, and Paonia led, 12-20, at the half.
Early in the second half, Walters followed his blocks past the defense and ran 60 yards for the score.
With just over three minutes remaining in the game Centauri got within one scoring drive from tying the score on a pass from Jarvies to Clay McCarroll.
On the kickoff the Falcons attempted an onside kick. In the scramble the ball got loose and senior Jesse Gillenwater recovered at mid-field. Gillenwater said he knew a recovery by Centauri would be a game-changer.
"I don't know, it was just all reaction," Gillenwater says. "I was going to block and it was just there. I wasn't going to let anybody get to it."
The Eagles were able to hold Centauri and take the victory formation with 9 seconds remaining on the clock. The final score: 24-32.
It's been over 50 years since Paonia won its first state title, and until Saturday it was there only one.
Several members of the 1959 team, including Jack Hayden, Art Edwards, Cliff Davis, Randy Jackson, Bob Sunich, Jess Campbell and Dan Cholas, came to cheer on their successors. Cholas and Jackson wore their 60s-era Paonia letterman sweaters.
Cholas went on to coach at Ignacio three years and even had a couple of tryouts with the Broncos in the late 60s. He recalled that season, and the excitement of winning a state football title.
"What a great feeling, it's something you'll never forget," Cholas says. "In fact, I brought the sweater out of moth balls. It's the first time I wore it in 48 years."
But for Cholas, the best memories aren't of that game. They are of his mom hosting dinner for the team after the win, and the semifinal game against Alamosa that got them to the finals. The Eagles were an 18-point underdog and were down, 14-0, at halftime. In the first two minutes of the second half, Alamosa tied the game.
"But then we beat them in sudden death overtime, the old California playoff where they put the ball at the 50-yard line," says Cholas. "We ran a play, they ran a play, and they kept track of yardage. We beat them on yardage."