PUEBLO – For the last three seasons, Stratton has learned that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. The Eagles came into 2022 with the understanding that they weren’t going to let anything be close enough to blow up their face.

Despite turning the ball over on the first play of the game and trailing early, they put together a dominant performance – right in line with the dominant performances they’ve had all year – to beat Fleming 83-18 and claim the 6-man football championship.

It was very much a redeeming win considering that two of the last three state title game losses came to Fleming.

This is the sixth straight state title game appearance for the Eagles but just their second state championship in that stretch. It’s the ninth football title overall for the program.

“I think it all goes back to those previous years,” coach Jesse McConnell said. “We’ve gotten so close to finishing the gold trophy. I don’t think the kids wanted to leave here without it.”

Considering the number of times that the Eagles (14-0 overall) have reached the championship game only to fall short, Alex Cruz’s fumble on the first play of the game could’ve spent the team into a mental tailspin.

But there was something about this group and that was evident way back in Week 1 when it blew out defending champion Cheyenne Wells.

“You don’t think about much (on a mistake),” Cruz said. “I just had to come out and play my game.”

(Dan Mohrmann/ColoradoPreps.com)

This wasn’t so much a revenge tour as it was a mission. Stratton was tired of finishing in second place. After falling behind 6-0 in the first quarter, the Eagles went end zone hunting with Cruz, the game’s Most Outstanding Player, scoring two rushing touchdowns in the first quarter.

Cyler Notter backed him up with one of his own and the standout backs combined to rush for 267 yards and seven touchdowns in the first half alone.

“It’s been three years for me and the seniors had a state championship game in Stratton against Fleming and lost by a point,” Notter said. “This means a lot to us.”

Sophomore Brody Webb got the defense on the scoreboard with a pick-six off Fleming quarterback Braylen Feather and Charlie Tagtmeyer added a special teams score by returning a punt for a touchdown near the end of the first half.

That punt return pushed the Eagles to a 50-point starting the running clock for the remainder of the game.

Webb got his second interception of the day on Fleming’s first drive of the second half. Three more carries by Cruz got the Eagles back in the end zone and the only thing left to do was wait for time to expire.

“(We knew we won) when the clock ran out in the fourth quarter,” Notter said.”Coach always finish the game.”

Cruz earned MOP honors from the National Football Foundation thanks to his 13 carries for 248 yards and five touchdowns. He was presented the award by CSU-Pueblo athletic director Paul Plinske. But he wasn’t concerned about any individual accolades. His favorite part of the experience wasn’t competing for a title, but rather who he was competing alongside.

“It was playing with my brothers,” Cruz said. “And finally winning a championship with them.”

(Dan Mohrmann/ColoradoPreps.com)