It’s a very balanced, very deep and wide-open Class 3A Football bracket this year. The field includes two defending state champions, a team that won three consecutive titles from 2014-16 and two teams who made it through the ten game regular season without a loss. The opening round is also very attractive as five of the eight games are the first-ever playoff meetings between the two teams.
#1 Palisade (9-1) vs #16 Fort Morgan (8-2)
The top seeded Bulldogs were not pushed over the last half of the season as they cruised through the Western Slope winning each game by at least 28 points. The lopsided scores allowed QB Cam Tucker to rest and get healthy for the November playoff push. The senior led the team with 1,240 yards and ten touchdowns for the season but had just 15 carries over the last three games. He still managed to score 14 touchdowns in league play on just 53 carries. Tucker gets help in the run game from Jason Bruce (665 yards) and Cole Tscherter (443) who have combined for 12 scores. Carl Cox, with 81 tackles, leads a defensive unit that has forced 15 turnovers including two interception returns for touchdowns.
Fort Morgan ended up second to Erie in the North Valley but pushed the Tigers in the regular season finale before falling 31-28. The Mustangs feature QB Isaac Linker and RB JP Hamer. Linker threw for 1,182 yards with 18 TD’s in the regular and Hamer picked up 1,356 yards rushing with 14 TD’s. He also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Linker (60) and Alec Ortega (55) are the top tacklers. The Mustangs forced 19 turnovers including three interceptions by Donovan Moya.
Despite the easy run through league play, Palisade played the more difficult schedule as they posted wins over playoff entrants Durango, Green Mountain, Grand Junction Central and Evergreen. Fort Morgan went 0-2 against playoff teams (Erie & Thomas Jefferson).
The teams have split two past playoff battles. Fort Morgan blanked Palisade 21-0 in the 2015 quarterfinals and Palisade won 38-28 in 2007 (2nd round).
#8 Evergreen (6-4) vs #9 Mead (7-3)
Mead is the lower seed but will host as they captured the North Metro championship while Evergreen ended up second to Green Mountain in the Mt. Metro. The Mavericks have plenty of momentum entering the playoffs as they downed Frederick 30-11 for the league crown last week. They also rolled Holy Family 56-7 in week nine. Those wins pushed them to 2-3 against playoff teams with early losses to Skyline, Evergreen and Erie. Evergreen is 0-4 against playoff teams as they fell to Palisade, Erie and Lewis Palmer outside the league and 31-7 to Green Mountain inside the conference.
Both teams will look to run the football. Mead averages 268 yards per game with 36 touchdowns on the ground. Nathan Bailey is the top runner with 808 yards and 11 scores. Jake Wachter is next with 490 and 10 touchdowns. Evergreen totals 308 yards per game with 32 scores overall. They give many players the chance to run the football each week as with Ben Haefeli (781 yards) and Beck Barrett (710) posting the best numbers.
Defensively, Evergreen has 12 interceptions and 12 fumbles recoveries including four from Cade Carroll. Mead has forced 29 turnovers including seven interceptions from Tyler Ward.
Individually, Devon Edwards tops Mead with 114 tackles which is nearly double from the next closest teammate. Grant Harris (74) and Mason Schmid (67) are the tackle leaders for Evergreen.
This will be the first playoff meeting between the two clubs.
#4 Palmer Ridge (8-2) vs #13 Pueblo South (5-5)
Both clubs are defending state champions but only will keep the chance to repeat after this weekend. Palmer Ridge is the reigning 3A champion while South dropped into the division after claiming the 4A title last Fall. The two also meet in late October with Palmer Ridge scoring a 45-14 win to close up non-conference play.
Palmer Ridge ran for 250 yards in the win with Rael Ruel totaling 163 yards and three scores. Ty Evans was limited to 67 yards passing but the returning player of the year has 1,945 yards on the season. Pueblo South ran for 132 yards in the loss but hit just four of 20 pass attempts for 28 yards.
That win was the second in the Bear’s current seven game winning streak. Because of their early struggles where they opened 1-2, the Bears did not crack the RPI top 16 until week eight but their late season surge has pushed them to the fourth overall playoff seed. While they have proven offensive stars in Evans, Ruel and Anthony Roberson (37 catches), the Bears are also getting noticed for great defensive play down the stretch. The unit posted consecutive shutouts to close the season and allowed Discovery Canyon just 92 yards rushing and 22 passing. The week before, they pushed Lewis Palmer back for minus three yards rushing and allowed just 30 passing. Palmer Ridge won both games 42-0.
Pueblo South won’t be intimidated as the Colts played the strongest schedule in Class 3A. Seven of their 10 games were against playoff teams and they went 2-5 in those contests; beating Durango and Lewis Palmer and falling to Pueblo East, Palmer Ridge, Discovery Canyon, Erie and Holy Family. Overall, the Colts have won five of six since the loss to Palmer Ridge with the lone loss coming against Pueblo East.
Because they’ve been in different classifications, it’s not surprising to find the Bears and Colts have not played previously in the playoffs.
#5 Harrison (10-0) vs #12 Holy Family (7-3)
Expect plenty of points in this one as both teams feature strong offenses. Harrison rolled up 372 points in finishing the regular season as one of two unbeaten teams in Class 3A. Holy Family totaled 360 points and ended up 7-3 overall.
The Panthers have major weapons at nearly every skill position. RB Aumiere Shedrick rushed for 1,319 yards and 15 TD’s while QB Orlando Westbrook-Sanchez threw for 2,086 yards and rushed for 630. He was involved in 31 touchdowns. Seth Fuller, with 55 catches and five touchdowns, paces a receiving group that also includes Devon Washington (6 TDs).
Holy Family counters with Kyle Helbig who threw for 1,109 yards and rushed for 462 while starting the last six games of the season. He totaled 22 touchdowns overall. His favorite target is Devon Doroff with 31 catches for six touchdowns. Helbig caught 20 passes for six touchdowns through four games before the move to QB because of injury. Trevin Johnson, with 718 yards, is the top rusher.
Defense is the biggest concern for Holy Family. The Tigers gave up 281 points in regular season play which is the most of any playoff team in Class 3A. Harrison gave up 65.
While the overall record favors Harrison, the stronger schedule leans heavily to Holy Family. The Panthers beat Green Mountain (34-21) in the season opener but did not face a playoff team the rest of the way. Holy Family had five games against playoff teams and went 2-3 in that stretch including wins over Pueblo South and Skyline. Losses were against Discovery Canyon, Frederick and Mead with the last two dropping the Tigers to third in the North Metro.
This will be the first meeting in the playoffs between the Panthers and Tigers.
#3 Erie (10-0) vs #14 Durango (6-4)
The Tigers have been dominant much of the season as they scored wins over five playoff teams and only one was decided by less than 17 points. That narrow victory came last week as they clinched the North Valley title with their road win at Fort Morgan (31-28). Otherwise, the Tigers ran past Evergreen by 28 points, Pueblo South by 21, Frederick by 27 and Mead by 17.
Of course, the headliner for Erie is Noah Roper. The senior running back has numbers eerily similar to last year at this time. Through the regular season this year, Roper has 1,846 yards and at this point a year ago the total was only 20 yards more (1,866). He finished 2017 with over 2,600 yards and would like a repeat of his November run last year; but only take it more step and win the state championship.
Durango may be considered the hard luck team concerning seeding the 3A bracket. The Demons were 8th in RPI but also finished third in the South-Central behind Pueblo East and Pueblo South. That cost them several spots in the bracket and they’re now faced with a long road trip and a matchup with the unbeaten Tigers.
The Demons are also battle tested. They’ve played five playoff teams but have just one win (Bayfield). Losses are against to Palisade, Montrose, Pueblo South and Pueblo East. Jordan Woolverton threw for 1,560 yards in the regular season and Dawson Marcum ran for 1,131 yards with 11 touchdowns. He could be the key offensively as the Demons are just 1-3 when he doesn’t run for at least 100 yards.
The two met in the state quarterfinals last year with Erie picking up a wild 35-28 win at Durango. Roper ran for 209 yards and four touchdowns. Woolverton threw for 154 yards and two scores as a freshman and Marcum ran for 67 yards and caught four passes for 50.
#6 Green Mountain (8-2) vs #11 Thomas Jefferson (8-2)
The Rams captured the Mt. Metro title and the Spartans ended up third in the rugged Central division. Both teams have two wins over playoff teams as the Rams topped Standley Lake and Evergreen while the Spartans moved past Fort Morgan and Lewis Palmer. Both also have two losses to teams in the post-season with Green Mountain falling to Harrison and Palisade to open the season. Thomas Jefferson came up short in league play to Discovery Canyon and Palmer Ridge.
Both clubs have the ability to move the football well on the ground or through the air. Green Mountain QB Trey Towndrow finished the regular season with 1,286 yards passing and 844 rushing wit ha combined 19 touchdowns. Quinn Meinert (960) also needs just 40 yards to reach 1,000 for the season.
Harrison is led by the tandem of Daveon Hunter (1,366 yards rushing) and Trenton Koser (1,318 yards passing). Hunter has scored 16 touchdowns and Koser has thrown for 11. Keshaun Taylor leads the wide-outs with 25 catches for 516 yards and four scores.
Both teams also feature big play defenders. Taylor has five interceptions and two fumble recoveries for TJ and the Spartans have created 28 turnovers overall. Ryan Burdi leads Green Mountain with 120 tackles and no other Ram has more than 70. He also has six interceptions as the Rams have forced 21 turnovers. Another key could be pressure on the QB as the Rams have 18.5 sacks this year including eight from Will Banks.
This will be the first playoff meeting between the Rams and Spartans.
#7 Discovery Canyon (8-2) vs #10 Frederick (8-2)
Despite the glittering records, both clubs seek to regain some momentum this week following difficult finishes to the regular season. Discovery Canyon opened the season 7-0 but was upset by Lewis Palmer (30-27) and then were thumped by Palmer Ridge (42-0) last week. Frederick closed the year with a disappointing 30-11 loss to Mead that cost the Warriors the North Metro championship. Their only previous loss came against Erie (43-16) very early in the season.
Frederick ran for 206 yards against Mead including 81 from Trey Odell but they also turned it over three times. The Warriors averaged 325 yards per game and have scored a whopping 46 touchdowns on the ground. Brandon Hornby (734) is the rushing leader and has scored 13 touchdowns but has not reached 100 yards in a game since September. He was held to 37 yards on just five attempts against Mead.
Discovery Canyon picks up an average of 316 yards per game rushing with 45 touchdowns on the season. Marshall Pike (1,137 yards) ran the ball just once against Palmer Ridge and has just 18 attempts over the last three games. QB Zack Anderson managed just one yard on 10 carries against Palmer Ridge last week but totaled 307 in the previous two contests. On the season, Anderson has collected 714 yards rushing with 12 scores and 616 and six TD’s passing.
This is the first-ever playoff meeting between the two programs.
#2 Pueblo East (8-2) vs #15 Lewis Palmer (6-4)
The Eagles are arguably the hottest team entering the playoffs. They won five straight games by a combined 143 points and used those wins to pick up a conference championship and top two overall seed. Included in the run were wins over playoff qualifiers Pueblo South and Durango. They also posted non-league wins over playoff clubs Longmont and Palmer Ridge. Losses to playoff teams came against Discovery Canyon and Pueblo West in back-to-back weeks.
Lewis Palmer is the fourth playoff team from the Central division so they’ve also faced many of the best clubs the division has to offer. They have quality wins over Discovery Canyon and Evergreen and all four of their losses are to teams in the bracket (Mead, Pueblo South, TJ & Palmer Ridge).
For the Rangers to spring the upset, they must run the football. Lewis Palmer ran for 1,790 yards on the season but were held to under 80 yards in three of their four losses. Evan Walsh leads the team with 1,395 yards and 17 TD’s with the rest of the club totaling 395 yards. The Rangers have thrown for nearly 1,300 yards so there is balance. Joel Scott has 37 catches for 599 yards and four touchdowns. Jake Martin has also hauled in six touchdown passes.
QB Luc Andrada leads the Pueblo East offense in passing (2,189 yards) and rushing (621). He’s thrown for 23 TD’s against just three interceptions and has surpassed 200 yards in six games. He’s also topped 100 yards rushing three times. His best effort may have come early against Longmont where he combined for 413 yards and six scores.
Pueblo East and Lewis Palmer have played once before in the post-season with the matchup taking place in the 2015 opening round. Pueblo East rolled to a 49-10 win on their way to the second of three consecutive state championships.