With each winning two state championships over the past four years, La Junta and Bayfield have dominated the Class 2A scene of late. Both teams appear to be in the thick of things again this year but some of the top teams from the past couple of seasons have lost key players to graduation while others fighting for respect have a good supply of talent back on the field. It could mean for another exciting year in the 2A ranks and we take a look at many of the storylines.
WHO REPLACES JON NUSCHY WITH THE LA JUNTA TIGERS?
I’m sure it’s a question the Tigers coaches and players are already tired of answering but if a new quarterback steps up to replace the graduated three-time player of the year then the Tigers could be favored based on the amount of talent returning across the board.
Ryan Malden seems to be the choice at QB and he moves in from another backfield spot where he led the Tigers with 14 receptions while rushing for 594 yards and six touchdowns. He’s part of a solid contingent of runners returning including Antonio Chavez (658), Dillon Stevens (276), Mitch Peabody (272) and Anthony Torrez (237). That group and a solid offensive line should allow the Tigers the chance to again move the chains and eat up the game clock.
On the defensive side, two other key losses include all-state lineman Jacob Tafoya and linebacker Ty Addington but again the cupboard is far from bare. Kyle Keck, with 79 tackles, led the team in that category last year and returns to head up a solid unit. He’s joined by Peabody (67), Noah Barrett (54) and Chavez (49).
CAN LAMAR MAKE A RETURN TO THE PLAYOFFS AND MAKE THE WHISTLE GAME IMPORTANT?
While La Junta worked to another state title, no other team inside the Tri Peaks even made the playoffs but Lamar could change that scenario this year. Very young the past couple of seasons, the Savages have taken their lumps but that youth now has plenty of experience. They won four games last year and the goal should be higher this year.
QB Zane Rankin is back for another season after throwing for 1,171 yards and running for 752. Walker Kee picked up 918 yards on the ground and 377 through the air while Blake Buxton caught 16 passes for 290 yards. That’s a very good trio that will be difficult to stop if the offensive line provides space. Defensively, the Savages get back both Bryson Cox (76 tackles) and Jesus Gonzalez 74.
La Junta has won 21 straight league games in the Tri Peaks but Lamar handed them their last loss by capturing the Whistle game in 2014 (37-13). Since then, the annual rivalry game between La Junta-Lamar has been lopsided but the Savages hope to change that this year.
IS THE GAP CLOSING ON KENT DENVER IN THE COLORADO?
Kent Denver is another team that has dominated conference play as they’ve not lost to a league opponent since 2013. Tradition will again make them the favorite this year but the Sun Devils have to retool almost their entire lineup while challengers Englewood (7-2) and Machebeuf (5-4) have plenty of talent back from last season.
The Sun Devils graduated their top four rushers and three-year starting quarterback Joey Licht. Matthew Redmond caught 11 passes in 2018 but he’s the only returnee with more than two. On defense, the top four tacklers and eight of the top 10 have moved on to college. Redmond, with 61, is again the top returnee there along with Sander Sveen (48) who was sixth last year.
By comparison, Englewood and Machebeuf both return quality starting quarterbacks and other offensive weapons. The Pirates (7-2) barely missed the playoffs last season while Machebeuf (5-4) ended up third in conference play.
Mason Robertson will again direct the Englewood attack. He threw for 1,638 yards and 16 TD’s as a junior. His three top targets from 2018 are all scheduled to return as Nate Gravagno (32), Destin Bick (14) and Yakez Daughtry (13) combined for 59 catches.
Ryan Schmitt is the returning signal caller for Machebeuf. He totaled 629 yards passing with over half of that total going to Jack Farmer (355) as they connected on four touchdowns. Darius Richards also returns after totaling 1,012 yards and 11 TD’s on the ground a year ago.
WILL THE WESTERN SLOPE AGAIN SEND FOUR TEAMS TO THE PLAYOFFS?
Rifle, Basalt, Delta and Aspen all reached the 2018 playoffs with the Bears and Longhorns each posting a first-round win. Looking ahead to 2019, it appears that Rifle, Delta and Aspen should be strong contenders for another post-season visit while the Longhorns have built some recent tradition but now need new faces to play major roles.
Nolan Bynum seems to be the key for Delta. The QB finished with 1,250 yards and 15 TD’s but was limited to just eight games due to injury. In the remaining three games, the Panthers threw for just 170 yards and did not get into the end zone through the air.
Should he stay healthy, the Panthers have more than enough talent to make a deep run in November. On the roster this year are the top two rushers, Cody Sauve (935 yards) and Ku Moo (529), and the top four receivers, Skyler Kraai (31 catches), Nathan Workman (29), Gauge Lockhart (18) and Hunter Hughes (17) from last season.
The defense graduated their top two tacklers but the next five on the list are back this year. That list includes Brandon Butler with 77 tackles including ten behind the line of scrimmage.
Aspen will again air it out on the strength of QB Tyler Ward. He threw for 2,202 yards and 26 TD’s with only eight interceptions as a sophomore. His leading receiver, Max Ufkes, also returns after catching 50 passes for 920 yard and 10 scores. A key loss though is Noah Hollander (47 catches).
On the ground, the Skiers will get yardage from Tyler Fabrocini (696) and Jonathon Woodrow (314) who combined for over 1,000 a year ago.
Rifle has the rare feat of replacing a two-time 2,000 yard back as Tanner Vines finally ran through his high school eligibility. Vines rushed for 2,230 yards and 21 TD’s as a senior and another 2,068 yards and 19 scores as a junior.
That’s a big loss for any club but the Bears seemingly always have the next guy in line, especially in the backfield. That guy this year may be Levi Warfel. He totaled 952 yards and nine touchdowns as a second option last season but should get more touches this year. Warfel is also a threat in the passing game. He led the team with eight catches but five went for touchdowns.
Another key returnee is Holden Stutsman. The quarterback rushed for 292 yards and was very effective in the passing game. He tossed nine touchdown passes on his way to 527 yards overall.
Basalt has won first round playoff games each of the last two years and enters 2019 seeking a fourth consecutive trip to the post-season. But the list of standouts who graduated is a long one. On defense, the top seven tacklers were seniors plus the Longhorns lost veteran QB Trevor Reuss (1,035 yards passing) and key runner Jake Reardon (1,561 yards rushing). Receivers Jackson Rappaport (38 receptions) and Tristan Johnston (13) both return but the question is who will get them the ball.
THE INTERMOUNTAIN ALSO SENT FOUR TEAMS TO THE PLAYOFFS A YEAR AGO – CAN THAT MATCH THAT NUMBER IN 2019
It was an unusual season in the IML as both Alamosa (4-5) and Montezuma Cortez (4-6) reached the playoffs despite finishing below 500. Tough schedules, both in and out of conference play, helped them advance and with the slates identical this year, the situation could arise again.
Bayfield (8-2) and Salida (9-2) were both first round winners last season with Spartans collecting their playoff win since 2006. For the Wolverines, the second-round loss to Faith Christian (21-13) marked a very early loss for a team that won state titles in both 2015 and 2017.
Both clubs will be in the conference mix again but both have to develop new leaders. Bayfield graduated QB Hayden Farmer and backfield mates Keyon Prior and David Hawkins while Salida lost their top three rushers and top five tacklers.
Key returnees at Bayfield include Dylan Hilliker who rushed for 480 yards and six touchdowns while also leading the team with 18 catches for 196 yards. He’s joined by Crosby Edwards who caught 14 passes as a sophomore.
In Salida, production will most likely come from Zayne Walker and Ben Fuller. Walker split time at QB and finished 599 yards and seven scores. He also ran for 275 yards. Fuller added 250 yards rushing and caught five passes. On defense, Jesse Camp (60 tackles) and Elijah Roberts (49) will need to step up.
Montezuma Cortez is rebuilding offensively as the top passer, rusher and receiver all graduated. The top five tacklers were also seniors so a rebuild is also needed on that side.
Alamosa gets back Brendon Madril who threw for 222 yards and rushed for 442. Ian Jackson, with 374 yards rushing and 170 receiving, also returns. Junior Cash Mueller (81 tackles) and Kane Absmeier (45) are keys defensively.
FAITH CHRISTIAN AGAIN FAVORED IN THE FLATIRONS
It was a very good first season for Coach Vince Siravo as he guided Faith Christian to the league title and all the way to the state semifinals where they lost to eventual champion La Junta. All three playoff games were decided by single digits so the Eagles are very battle tested heading into 2019.
For the fourth straight year, the offense will be under the direction of Isaiah Kroll. He went over 11-hundred yards passing last year and for his career stands at 35-hundred with 37 touchdowns. The top runner and receiver from last year both graduated but Kroll will give the offense solid leadership until new faces step up. One player who may get more touches could be Erick Granados. He ran for 594 yards in 2018.
Defensively, the Eagles should be very good early on as six of the top seven tacklers are back. Michael Osgood led the club with 82 tackles and he returns along with Aron Buchmann (49). Joel Burck and Edorado Castaneda each intercepted three passes.
The schedule is difficult early and late as the Eagles open with Resurrection Christian and Kent Denver before finishing with D’Evelyn. The November 1st date with the Jags will again likely decide the conference crown.
D’Evelyn is much like Rifle in replacing standouts. With the Bears, it’s running back and with the Jags it’s quality quarterbacks. Evan Willis threw for 1,962 yards and 14 TD’s last season and leaves a hole there for the Jags but It’s one where they always have a successor. Thomas Lowry (34 catches) will be a good target for the new signal caller and Jake Braun is a returning second-team all-state lineman.
Bennett and Middle Park both finished 5-4 last season and hope to push for a playoff spot. The Panthers return Gabe Loberg (869 yards rushing) and Cameron Conger (59 tackles). Bennett gets back Mac Copeland (828 yards / 53 tackles).
PLATTE VALLEY COULD ROLL THROUGH PATRIOT EAST
Only two first-team all-state players return across the entire Class 2A division and both can be found on the Platte Valley roster. They are Gryphin Hooper and Alberto Perez. Plus, a third Bronco, Josh Yancey, also earned second-team all-state honors as the Broncos made it all the way to the state championship game.
Hooper will anchor both the offensive and defensive fronts while Perez will roam the defense from his linebacker spot and generate yardage as a running back offensively. He rushed for 174 yards in limited chances last year but compiled 98 tackles defensively.
Yancey filled in at many spots a year ago. He rushed for 446 yards and scored nine touchdowns on the ground and also led the team with 29 catches. Yancey was also tops on defense with 117 tackles.
The biggest question for the Broncos going into the season is at quarterback. Trevor Wehrman has been the starter the last three years and produced nearly 9,000 yards of total offense. He has since graduated and that may leave the job to Kade McDaniel who has spent the past two years at different spots in the lineup. He caught 18 passes a year ago but will likely be throwing them this year.
Other faces to watch for Platte Valley are Colby Frias (75 tackles), Gabe Montes (71) and Devyn Lauer (69) who combined for 215 stops a year ago.
Sterling (5-4) should again push Platte Valley inside the league. The Tigers struggled in non-conference play, falling to Eaton and Resurrection Christian, but nearly upset Platte Valley (31-28). That loss cost them a shot at the playoffs.
Brock Shalla returns at QB. He threw for 1,528 yards and 19 TD’s in his first year as the starter. He also led the team with 343 yards on the ground. His top three receivers all graduated leaving sophomore Jackson Keil (11 catches) as his best option for 2019.
Up front, the Tigers are in the good hands of Jake Busmente. He was named to the all-state second-team for his play as a linebacker after leading the team with 60 tackles. Busmente is also a top offensive lineman.
Brush (4-5) could also improve their mark behind returning QB Alejandro Maltos-Garcia (635 yards passing as a freshman) and Nick Wellen (1,240 yards rushing / 82 tackles) while Valley could be better with Servando Perez (659 yards passing) returning at QB.
LOOK FOR THE PATRIOT WEST TO BE MORE BALANCED THAN EXPECTED
There was a gap atop the league race last year as Resurrection Christian bested Berthoud by 20 points, Eaton by 19 and University by 37. The Lions begin the season ranked fourth in 2A by CHSAA and are again favored to land the conference crown, but it may not be as easy as 2018.
The Lions do return quarterback Buck Coors who threw for 509 yards in just eight games last season but big holes are found on both sides of the ball with the graduation of Zane Zuhlke and Kyle Lueck. Zuhlke led the team with 105 tackles and Lueck with 892 yards rushing. Colton Stahla (233 yards rushing) looks to make up for lost yardage on offense with Tanner Applebee (71 tackles) and Sawyer Shepherd (48) hoping to keep the defense solid.
Juniors could earn Eaton another playoff bid last year. As sophomores, the group led the Reds to a 6-3 regular season before a shutout loss to Rifle ended the season. Scott Grable will again start at QB after throwing for 1,047 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Classmates Gage Butler (451 yards) and Salvador Rojas (340) should anchor the ground game.
A tough non-league slate will aid the Reds in their playoff push as they meet Sterling, D’Evelyn, Platte Valley and Machebeuf in the opening month. A 3-1 record through that stretch should almost guarantee enough RPI points to make the 16-team bracket regardless of league finish.
Berthoud placed second last year but could take a step back this year. The top rushers, receivers and tacklers all graduated last Spring. Still on the field are Brennen Garvin, Sam Baird and Cooper Hildalgo. Garvin totaled 611 yards passing and 301 on the ground. Baird was fifth on the team with 50 tackles and Hildalgo sixth with 47.
University has made the post-season just once since 1985 (2016) but this could be a year where they break that trend. They return virtually every skill position player from a group that upset Berthoud late in the year to finish above five hundred (5-4). Chayden Cox threw for 950 yards and four TD’s last season and was also second on the team with 315 yards rushing. Sam Custer, the leader in that category with 399, is also back. Five receivers with at least 10 catches also return including Caden Measner (25), Mason Ewing (15) and Tayt Chacon (13). Jaxon Samsel also returns after leading the Bulldogs with 87 tackles.