Going into the state semifinals, the high school football experts had already set up a meeting between Roosevelt and Lutheran for the 3A state championship but no one told the players and coaching staffs at Mead and Fort Morgan high schools as both turned in upsets to qualify themselves.
Mead had lost to Roosevelt by 30 points in the regular season but turned that into a 18-point victory over the top ranked Riders in the semifinals last week. Lutheran entered the semifinals averaging 52 points per game with a season low 46 against a Colorado team but Fort Morgan limited to them to half that number in a 23-21 victory.
Now the Mavericks and Mustangs both look to build on that momentum and land the state championship on Saturday. They kickoff at one o’clock with Mead seeking their first football crown since the school was re-established in 2010. Fort Morgan captured their last state championship in 1999 when future NFL player Joel Dreessen was a senior.
Neither club has had smooth sailing in any playoff game. Fort Morgan has won their three games by a total of 23 points with the largest margin of victory coming in a first round shutout of Green Mountain (14-0). Mead opened with two one-point wins over Northridge and Durango before downing Roosevelt by 17 last week.
In the regular season loss to Roosevelt, Mead totaled just 190 yards on the ground but nearly doubled that total last week; finishing with 358 yards. Corby Tecu (116) and QB Gavin Garrettson (105) both reached the century mark while Sean Medlock (70) and Evan Morris (67) also had solid days. All four scored a touchdown. They attempted just four passes but Garrettson completed three for 57 yards and a score.
Fort Morgan jumped to a 20-7 halftime lead on Lutheran only to watch the Lions roar back for a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter. Following a big stop defensively, the Mustangs earned a short field goal from Brandon Marquez; his third of the day, to take the 23-21 advantage with just over a minute to play. Lutheran then drove the length of the field and was in field goal range when Frank Ortega intercepted a pass at the back of the end zone. His third pick of the day gave the Mustangs the victory and a trip to the state finals this week.
On offense, Briggs Wheatley threw for 235 yards with six of those completions going to Ortega for 157 yards. Brayden Fajardo also caught five passes for 53 yards before leaving with an injury. Wheatley (74) and Ortega (65) also had their moments on the ground.
Those three along with Fernando Marquez have been responsible for a large chunk of the Fort Morgan offense. Wheatley is over 2,900 yards of total offense and has been involved in 30 touchdowns. Ortega has 923 yards and 10 TDs rushing to pair with 877 yards and nine scores receiving. Fajardo has 32 catches with four TDs and Marquez actually tops the club with 45 catches for 618 yards. He’s reached the end zone three times.
In matching with Mead defensively this week, Fort Morgan’s key down may be the first. The Mavericks have developed a great ability to burn clock throughout the game especially in the fourth quarter when they have the lead. Several times this year, the Mavericks have finished games with six, seven and eight minute drives to seal a win. Slowing them on first down could get them off schedule and make them throw the ball when they don’t want to.
That responsibility falls on the likes of David Keller (team best 82 tackles), Marquez (55), Ortega (53) and Fajardo (49). Other top defenders include Leevi McCoy who picked up a team leading 11 tackles in last week’s win over Lutheran. He has 48 tackles on the season as does Colin Duckworth.
One other note on the Fort Morgan defense is their big play ability; especially in the secondary. They’ve forced 23 turnovers overall including 21 interceptions. Ortega’s three picks last week gave them a whopping 10 for the season. Fajardo is next with six.
Slowing down the Mead running game will not be easy as the Mavericks have reached another level in the postseason. They controlled the clock against Roosevelt; running the ball 59 times compared to just 49 overall plays for the Riders. And the 358 yards gained on the ground was their second highest total in any game this season. Through the first three playoff games, the Mavericks have 873 yards rushing.
Morris tops the Mavericks with 1,164 yards and 15 TDs for the season with Tecu at 535 and Medlock at 394. Both have scored seven touchdowns. Garrettson is also effective in the running game with 473 yards and two scores.
The senior QB can throw the ball if called upon but that’s not happened in the playoffs as they’ve dominated defenses on the ground. He’s attempted just 25 passes in the postseason; completing 10 for 175 yards. But during the regular season, Garrettson threw for 1,436 with several important touchdown tosses.
On defense, the Mavericks are coming off a solid showing as well. They allowed 441 yards of offense to Roosevelt in the regular season but trimmed that number to 304 last week. On the season, the Maverick have created 15 turnovers but also have 24 sacks. They hope that pressure can get to Wheatley and slow down the Mustangs big play passing offense. Brendan Castanon also has three interceptions.
For the season, Jeremiah Strizki leads the Mavericks defense with 102 tackles and Christian Ayers is next with 84. Danny Brewington recorded 58 stops and Lane Beumer 56.
Fort Morgan and Mead have not met previously in the playoffs but they’ve battled three times in the regular season since the 2016 season. Fort Morgan won the first meeting with the Mavericks taking the last two including a 35-0 decision last season. Not sure if a game in COVID is a good indication of what might happen on Saturday since variables changed for each team each week but the Mavericks ran for 232 yards and two scores. Garrettson also hit 14 of 19 attempts for 276 yards and three scores. Fort Morgan generated 172 yards of offense with Wheatley held to 98 yards passing and Ortega 35 on the ground.
Mead is 10-6 all-time in playoff games since restarting the football program. Fort Morgan is 34-34 overall with three state titles (99, 92, 52). Their last finals appearance came in 2008 when they fell to Glenwood Springs 23-14.