Thanksgiving week traditionally provides two marquee matchups between the best Class 5A football teams in the state. This year is no different. After making their way through the quarterfinals last weekend, the remaining four teams will hit the practice field prior to stuffing their faces with turkey and then turning their attention to the 5A semifinals.
The two matchups that are in store are the first matchups between the respective opponents this season. One could try and predict the outcome, which could end up as a rematch of last year’s state championship game, but there is really no point seeing as how the games have to played.
Here is a brief overview of the 5A football semifinals as the final four teams try and play for a trip to Empower Field to try and win a state title.
#4 Grandview (10-2) at #1 Valor Christian (12-0)
Grandview and Valor have found a way to clash with each other late in the postseason over the last few years. This semifinal clash will be the fourth meeting between the two programs in the last six season. Two of the previous meetings have been in the quarterfinals and the last meeting in 2018 was in the 5A semis. Valor Christian won the game and eventually went on to win the state title. This year’s game will feature two very different teams from that game in 2018. Both have different head coaches and different styles of play.
The Wolves were a bit more successful through the air in the quarterfinal win over Ralston Valley than they had been through most of the regular season. In fact, Liam Szarka’s 229 passing yards were his second most of the season, short only the 314 he threw against Mullen the week prior. His three touchdown passes to beat the Mustangs were a season high.
If he can maintain that productivity through air whole Moosah Alsaffar paces the run game, Grandview could have a winning game plan for Saturday. Alsaffar will be crucial to any success the Wolves intend to have as it will take an efficient running game to keep Gavin Sawkchuk and that high-octane Valor offense on the sideline.
Defensively, Preston Emken may have to carry the burden of keeping Sawchuk contained. He led the team with 10 total tackles last week and also recovered a fumble. It was encouraging that the Wolves pass-rush resulted in four sacks, but if the Eagles keep the ball on the ground that could be a key piece of Grandview’s defense that gets negated.
For Valor, reaching its second consecutive state championship game could come down to Sawchuk’s production. When games have been out of reach, he’s been pulled out of the lineup being limited to as few as two carries in certain games this season. That wasn’t the case last week as he ran the ball 39 times for 174 as the Eagles battled to beat Columbine 17-7. The touchdowns came courtesy of a touchdown run by Jordan Norwood and a pass from Colton Allen to Sawchuk.
Slowing down the Rebels offense was a bend-but-don’t-break proposition for the Eagles and they mastered the plan. They didn’t force a single turnover and the recorded just a single sack but allowed Columbine to score just seven points on offense. Not only that, but the Rebels totaled just 157 yards on offense the entire day. Zach Wiley and Cayden Hawkins flew around the field to combine for 21 tackles on the day. If they can shut down Alsaffar and keep Szarka from finding any rhythm through the air, Valor will punch yet another ticket to Mile High.
#3 Legend (11-1) at #2 Cherry Creek (10-2)
This game has a lot of firsts centered around it and that’s even before a snap has been played. This is the first time the Titans have multiple playoff wins in the same season and it’s the first time that Cherry Creek and Legend have lined up against each other in the postseason. Legend advanced to the semifinals last year and would have played Cherry Creek if they had gotten by Valor Christian, but it was the Eagles coming away with that win.
And that win may have ignited a fire in the Titans. Aside from a slipup against Mullen early this season, Legend has quietly emerged as an elite team in 5A. Bryce Vaz certainly has to be a player of the year candidate having rushed for 1,636 yards and 24 touchdowns on the year. The Titans leaned heavily on him in last week’s quarterfinal win over Arapahoe. He wasn’t as productive as he had been in previous games but he carried the ball 24 times for 93 yards. He also caught two passes for 70 yards and a touchdown.
Like Grandview on the other end of the bracket, it was the passing game that uncharacteristically carried the load offensively. Colton Warner completed 11 of 17 passes for 160 yards but he threw for three total touchdowns. Wide receiver Jackson Brush also threw for a score as the Titans got a little creative on the offensive end.
Legend forced two turnovers as Pearce Kirchner intercepted a pass and Ryan Eloriaga recovered a fumble. Legend has forced 30 turnovers this year with Nate Smith leading the way with seven interceptions. Opportunistic turnovers might be the best way to end Cherry Creek postseason winning streak.
But that’s a task easier said than done. Bruins coach Dave Logan might be the first to acknowledge that this isn’t the best Creek team he’s ever coached, but it might just have the most heart. The team bounced back from a stunning loss to Arapahoe to win its last three regular season games and then outscore its two playoff opponents 62-7 to make its way into the semifinals.
In last week’s win over Regis Jesuit, the Bruins totaled just 280 yards of offense and 188 of them came on the ground. Carlson Tann ran for 57 yards, Arion Boyd ran for 55 and they combined to score three touchdowns. Christian Hammond also scored a rushing touchdown and threw for just 92 yards in the win.
Like most Creek teams in recent memory, the defense was really the standout unit and has been the entire postseason. The Bruins picked off Exander Carroll and recovered a fumble off him. They allowed just 278 yards which nearly matched with the Creek offense put up, the difference was the Raiders couldn’t find a way to get into the end zone.
Limiting opponents into the end zone is a fine way to get a win and if the Bruins can do that, they’ll maintain a shot at a third consecutive state title.