It’s main event time and the bulk of football attention will turn to Empower Field at Mile High this weekend as Cherry Creek and Valor Christian are set to face off for the Class 5A state football championship. This is the third meeting between the programs in the state title game and the sixth postseason meeting overall between the two teams.
While last year’s state championships felt like they were played years ago, this has very much been about 365 days in the making. It’s been a long road for both programs and when kickoff happens at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, it will be the culmination of two great seasons by two traditionally great teams.
The playoff history itself tells an interesting story between these two teams. The state championship game in 2014 was perhaps the most thrilling championship game in state history. At that point, Valor had become the dominant football program within the state. The Eagles had won five straight state championships, one in 3A, two in 4A and two in 5A. The Bruins had beaten the Eagles earlier in the year and the rematch was every bit as thrilling with Creek coming away with the 25-24 win.
Valor turned around to get two years’ worth of revenge as it toppled Creek in the state semifinals in 2015 and 2016 and claimed state championship in both of those seasons. They wouldn’t see each other again in the postseason until 2018 when they made their way to the state title game. Led by now-University of Northern Colorado coach Ed McCaffrey, the Eagles came away with a 24-14 win to claim its eighth, and to date most current, state crown.
McCaffrey has since departed, and the Eagles turned to Donnie Yantis to head the program. Heading into Saturday’s game, Yantis has built a 20-1 record as the head coach of the Eagles. His one loss? Last year’s state championship game against Cherry Creek.
The high-octane no-huddle offense that Yantis brought to Valor was effective in moving the ball against the Bruins, but eventual Player of the Year Myles Purchase and the rest of the Creek defense was too much to overcome, and the Eagles left the CSU-Pueblo ThunderBowl without scoring a single point. Creek claimed a 28-0 win to win its 11th state championship in program history.
Looking at the top-seeded Eagles, they are a very different team than they were a year ago. Gavin Sawchuk has always been considered one of the top players in the state and he may have left no doubt to his status this season. He has rushed for 1,926 yards and 28 touchdowns this season which are staggering numbers to look at considering some of the games in which his day ended early.
In big wins over Highlands Ranch and Fort Collins, he registered a combined seven carries which went for 109 yards and two touchdowns. In the last two playoff games, he has been the focal point of the Eagles offense, rushing for 350 total yards and three scores. He also has one reception that went for a 59-yard touchdown. Winning another state championship will depend on Sawchuk’s productivity. He rushed for 153 yards on 23 carries in last year’s state title game, but his ability to find the end zone is so important to Valor’s championship hopes.
That’s not to say that the Eagles are entirely one-dimensional. Colten Allen has had a better than average year under center, throwing for 1,990 yards and 20 touchdowns. More importantly, he has thrown just four interceptions. His favorite target has been Grant Simmons, who has caught 49 passes for 667 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Eagles have a swarming defense that is dependent on the performance of the team overall rather than one specific player. Andrew Hale leads the team in tackles with 90 and half of them have been solo tackles which illustrates his ability to seek out a ball carrier.
If the Bruins are forced into a pass-heavy situation, Valor certainly has the tools to slow down that attack. Defensive end Luke Meyer leads the team with six sacks and has also forced five hurries on opposing quarterbacks. With Christian Hammond playing his first full season under center, Meyer could be disruptive on the field and force the junior into uncomfortable situations that could lead to stalled drives or even turnovers.
The Eagles are likely hoping for the turnovers. The Eagles have picked off 11 passes this year and Mitchell Bigelow has been the primary thief as he accounts for four of them on his own. On top of leading the team in sacks, Meyer has also contributed on the turnovers as he has recovered two fumbles.
The defense must stand tall to give the Eagles a shot on Saturday, but the emphasis must still be on an offense that was shut out a year ago. The Eagles have been tested in their two playoff wins against Columbine and Grandview but still averaged 386.5 yards of offense in those games. That is a number to keep an eye on throughout the course of Saturday’s game.
There are several reasons to doubt that this is Cherry Creek’s year to once again claim a title. The Bruins haven’t quite looked as dominant as they have in their previous two championship seasons, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in line for a win.
Hammond has been a steady replacement for his older brother at quarterback as he throws for about 143 yards per game and has a better than 2-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio*. He has three targets he tends to look at in Ismael Cisse (597 yards, five touchdowns), Ky Oday (425 yards, five touchdowns) and Kyair Johnston (367 yards).
Creek’s rushing attack has been a committee approach with Carlson Tann leading the way with 651 yards and seven touchdowns.
Like a lot of Creek teams, the 2021 version tends to hang its hat on the defensive side of the ball. While the Bruins don’t quite have the turnover numbers that the Eagles have, on paper they look a tad more aggressive toward opposing offenses.
Sophomore linebacker Angelo Petrides has been one of the best overall tacklers in the state this season. He is responsible for 125 tackles on the year. Although 101 of them have been assisted, Petrides is hawk who will not let a ball carrier escape after first contact is made whether it’s by the front seven or a defensive back. His ability to help close out a tackle might be the most important factor in helping to slow down Sawchuk.
Just like Valor, the Bruins are set up nicely if they can force the Eagles into passing situations. Blake Purchase comes by his football talents honestly considering how impactful older brother Myles was. Blake is no slouch himself as he has shown a knack for getting through the offensive line to take down opposing quarterbacks. He’s responsible for 11 sacks this year and if Sawchuk is slowed down and the Eagles have to let Allen throw the ball more than they’d like, it will Purchase who becomes the impact defensive player.
If the ball gets out of Allen’s hand, then of all the things he has to fear is freshman safety Aiden Knapke. Five times has Knapke picked off opposing quarterbacks and he has shown tremendous speed after the fact. He has 132 interception return yards and has taken one of his picks to the house for a touchdown. Petrides has also a nightmare in pass coverage as he accounts for four interceptions. If he’s not tackling a runner, he’s busy slipping into coverage. His four picks are a reminder that going to checkdown reads is never a safe play with this Cherry Creek team.
It’ll be fun to see how these various matchups play out when these team trot out on the home field of the Denver Broncos. These two programs have competed in some of the best playoff showdowns in recent memory and if the trend holds true, the fans at Empower Field will be in for quite the treat.
* – All Cherry Creek stats are reflective of 12 games as they have not entered stats for their semifinal win over Legend.