Three lower seeds picked up wins in the opening round of the Class 1A playoffs and the reward for Paonia, Limon and Monte Vista is the chance to play at home this week.  The tough part is they all face a highly seeded opponent.  The Eagles welcome top ranked Bennett, Limon plays host to Meeker and Monte Vista meets nearby rival Centauri.  The fourth semifinal pits Burlington the road to defending state champion Strasburg.
#1 Bennett (10-0) at #9 Paonia (8-2)
Expect a physical matchup between two returning state semifinalists as each club prefers to run the football much more than throwing it.  Bennett is coming off another strong effort on the ground where they ran for 331 yards on just 32 carries in their first-round win over Highland.  Paonia pounded out 163 yards in last week’s shutout of Peyton but more importantly held the Panthers running game in check; giving up just 63 yards on 40 attempts (1.6 per carry).
The challenge to slow down Bennett’s running game this week is even bigger.  The Tigers average 408 yards per game on the ground and by the end of Saturday could have two 1,000-yard rushers.  QB Rocky Lechman, with 1,682 yards is already there and Mason Wakeham (964) needs just 36 yards to surpass that total.  Jesse Rodriguez went over that number last year but injuries have kept him to “just 688” yards thus far.
Lechman also leads the trio with 25 TD’s rushing and has added five more through the air.  He’s averaging almost 27 yards per completion as when the Tigers do throw the ball, they normally end up with a big play.  Last week, Lechman attempted just one pass but it resulted in a 47-yard TD toss to Rodriguez.
As mentioned, the Paonia defense was very stout last week in blanking Peyton.  The game was played in a windstorm so neither team could generate much in the passing game.  Together they attempted just six passes without a completion.
Cyrus Malek-Madani leads Paonia with 76 tackles.  Sackett Chesnik and Clay Campbell are both next with 67.  The unit has forced 19 turnovers including 11 fumble recoveries.  They did not force one last week but may need to get one or two this week to spring the upset.
Offensively, Jaden Miller is the key for Paonia.  The Eagles senior picked up 73 yards last week and is over 14-hundred for the season.  Chesnik add 68.  Another threat is QB Cade Meilner who is at 367 yards with 10 touchdowns for the season.
The Tigers and Eagles have never met in the playoffs.  Bennett seeks a second straight trip to the semifinals and their second in school history.  A win by Paonia gets the Eagles into the semifinals for a fourth consecutive season.
#5 Burlington (8-2) at #4 Strasburg (9-1)
These two teams played in the regular season but it came so long ago, we’re not sure if anything can be taken from it.  Strasburg scored the 24-6 win in the season opener for both clubs but each team has changed quite a bit since then.  The Indians have a new quarterback in place while the Cougars signal caller now has a full-season of experience following his first-ever varsity start in week one.
Carson Spence was the starter for Strasburg in the first meeting and completed five of 10 passes for 135 yards.  But he’s since moved to the outside to make room for Jacob Miller.  He took over the starting role at the beginning of conference play and while his stats are not glittering (15-34-283-5 TD’s), the offense seems to be more effective with him calling the signals.
Burlington’s Braden Witzel connected on only four of 18 attempts for 19 yards with two interceptions in the opening loss to Strasburg.  But now he enters the quarterfinals with much more confidence after throwing for at least 100 yards in the last five games.  On the season, Witzel sits at 968 yards with 13 touchdowns.
The Cougars used 20 second quarter points to bounce Platte Canyon 41-0 last week.  They ran for 240 yards including 66 from Kaden Meurisse and 59 from Witzel.  Witzel also threw for 122 yards and two touchdowns on just seven attempts.  He completed six of those passes with both scores going to Jonah Hanson.  Hanson has been the top target most of the season; leading the team with 39 catches for 627 yards and nine scores.
Strasburg rolled past Wray 35-6 in the first round.  Michael Spence paced the ground game with 89 yards and Hunter Bergstrom added 53.  Defensively, they limited the Eagles single-wing attack to just 120 yards on the ground.
On defense, the Indians swarm to the football as 17 players are at double figures in tackles.  64 of those stops have been behind the line of scrimmage including 20 sacks.  More importantly, the Indians have forced 23 turnovers including 18 interceptions.  Freshman Collin Russell leads that group with five picks.
Witzel and Reiber top Burlington’s defense with 78 tackles apiece.  They are basically tied with Strasburg in tackles behind the line of scrimmage (63) and sacks (22) but have not forced nearly as many turnovers (10).  Sophomore Andrew Burton is the top man there with four interceptions.
Burlington has 73 playoff wins in school history but not one has been against Strasburg.  The Cougars haven’t been to the semifinals since 2011 when they captured the state championship.  Strasburg, of course, is the defending state champion but had not been to the semifinal since 1990 before getting there last season.
#3 Centauri (10-0) at #11 Monte Vista (7-3)
Separated by just 33 miles in the San Luis Valley, the two Southern Peaks rivals probably didn’t need to trade film this week.  They play each other every season and the annual clash often decides the league championship.  This year was no different as the Falcons picked up a 27-2 victory in what turned out to be for the league title.
Neither team could muster much offense in the first meeting but the game turned in favor of Centauri due to big plays on defense and in special teams.  Taj Cornum started the scoring by returning an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter and later in the game, Sam Anderson returned a kickoff 92 yards for another score.  Otherwise, the Falcons generated only 178 yards of offense including 151 yards rushing.  Cornum also led that effort with 87 yards.
Monte Vista didn’t dent the scoreboard on offense as their only score came on a late safety.  Jacob Chavez finished with 107 yards but the rest of the Pirates totaled just 62 yards.  Each team managed 27 yards passing.
Because of the teams are so familiar with one another, the rematch could be low scoring.  The key for Monte Vista is Chavez as the Pirates need him to establish the run.  They want to keep possession, control the clock and limit offensive possessions for the more explosive Centauri offense.  Chavez has collected 1,348 yards and 18 TD’s this season.  He ran for 176 and two scores in last week’s narrow 39-34 win over Clear Creek.  The senior has eight touchdowns over the last three games; all wins by the Pirates.
Other offensive threats include Tyler Vigil (312 yards rushing / 4 TDs) and Kaidon Wentz (207 yards / 5 TDs).  Defensively, the Pirates have produced 17 turnovers including 10 fumble recoveries.
If you base it on fewest points allowed, then Centauri has the best defense in Class 1A.  The Falcons have surrendered only 46 points all season.  Coach Kyle Forster’s bunch was stingy again last week holding Colorado Springs Christian to just seven points in a 14-point first round victory.  In the win, Centauri held the Lions to a minus seven yards rushing and had five interceptions.  That effort increased the Falcons season turnover number to 26.
Offensively, Nate Anderson has thrown 11 touchdown passes while Taj Cornum (643 yards rushing) and Brandon Buhr (609) have combined for 15 in the run game.  Sam Anderson (15) and Buhr (12) have combined for just 27 catches but ten have gone for scores.
Not surprisingly, the local rivals have not met previously in the playoffs.  They’ve spent time in different classifications and when together in the same league, they’re often on opposite sides of the bracket.  Monte Vista needs a win to reach the semifinals for the first time since 1999.  Centauri was there as recent at 2013.
#2 Meeker (10-0) at #10 Limon (8-2)
This has the makings of a very good matchup as both offenses rank among the best in Class 1A and the defenses are near the top of the charts as well.  Meeker (375) has scored the fourth most points in the division this season and Limon (305) tenth.  Limon is second in points allowed (61) and Meeker (69) fourth.
Standout players can also be found across the board.  QB Logan Hughes has directed Meeker to wins in 22 of their last 23 games and enters round two of the playoffs with 1,721 yards and 16 TD passes.  He’s also contributed 446 yards and 11 scores on the ground.  In last week’s blowout of Cornerstone Christian (50-0), the senior was involved in four touchdowns and ended the game with 190 yards of total offense.
Hughes though is far from a one-man gang.  Doak Mantle (835 yards) has scored 13 touchdowns rushing and went for 101 yards and a TD last week.  Trapper Merrifield caught two touchdown passes in the win and has 36 catches for 915 yard and 14 scores on the season.  Stephen Walsh (16), Jacob Pelloni (12), Mantle (12) and Eli Hanks (12) are all factors in the passing game; combining for 52 catches.  Jorgen Stagg, with 283 yards, is another option in the running game.
QB Canaan Bennett and RB Hauk Hubbard top the Limon offense.  Numbers from last week’s 17-6 win at Crowley County are not available but Bennett finished the regular season with 684 yards and nine touchdowns passing.  He’s added another six scores and 408 yards rushing.  Hubbard had 817 yards rushing with 10 touchdowns.
But it’s on the defensive side where the Badgers are the most dangerous.  They allowed 29 points in a regular season closing loss to Burlington but allowed only one other opponent to reach double figures and posted six shutouts overall.  The Badgers also entered the playoffs with 16 interceptions and 12 sacks.  Those two stats will be important this week as they look to both pressure Hughes in his short drops and make plays in the secondary.
That strategy was very effective last week.  Crowley County did throw for 213 yards but the Badgers also intercepted three passes.  The defense also held the Chargers to just 38 yards rushing on 24 attempts.
Meeker’s defense as mentioned can also make plays.  Tannen Kennedy is the top tackler with 106 and is tied for the team lead with five sacks.  Walsh has five of the Cowboys 12 interceptions and nine different players have recovered a fumble.
With all the successful playoff history in both programs, it’s a bit surprising that they’ve never met in the post-season but that’s the case.  Limon is one win away from reaching the semifinals for the first time since 2013.  Meeker made it all the way to the state championship game last year and made the Final Four in 2014.