Just as many expected when the season began, the eight-man championship game features teams from the Plains and Mountain divisions. However, they may not be the teams that were projected to be slugging it out on Friday. Sedgwick County and Sanford, the two teams that played for the state title last December, opening 1 and 2 in the preseason coaches poll, but neither made the finals. Instead, Haxtun and Mancos, the top two teams in the bracket, emerged from the field of 16 to face off in the championship contest. The game will be played at CSU-Pueblo, in the Thunderbowl, at 6pm.

Haxtun (12-0) comes in averaging just over 51 points a game, having scored 619 on the year. The Fightin’ Bulldogs scored at least 60 points four times this season, and were only held below 40 twice. They pitched shutouts in three of their first four games and tacked on one more blanking in the regular season finale. Overall, Haxtun allowed 130 points, or an average of just under 11 a game.

In the postseason, the Fightin’ Bulldogs got the mercy clock in a 56-16 first round victory over Byers before having a tougher time with Akron and Holly. After beating Akron 58-0 in the regular season finale, Haxtun took a 42-24 win over the Rams in the quarterfinals in a game that saw the Fightin’ Bulldogs run for 472 yards. Haxtun used six takeaways to defeat Holly 46-26 last week.

With nearly 1,500 yards rushing on the season, Haxtun’s Michael Gerk leads a Bulldogs offense averaging 52 points per game. PHOTO BY OT SPORTSCHECK

The ground game has taken center stage this season, with almost 4200 yards being amassed. Michael Gerk (1494 yards, 20 TD) and Isaac Andersen (1317 yards, 25 TD) have both surpassed the 1000-yard mark on the season, with each recording eight 100-yards games. QB Owen Knode has added 558 yards and eight scores in the rushing attack.

Knode has been a more than capable passer, recording 945 yards and 12 touchdowns through the air. He’s only thrown three interceptions this season. Gerk has the most receptions on the team, with 18, for 242 yards and three scores, while Kyle Fryrear is tops in yardage (414) and touchdowns (7), on 15 receptions. Andersen has recorded 12 catches and 186 yards.

Andersen (26), Gerk (23), Fryrear (10) each have scored double figure touchdowns, with Knode (8) and Kailin Kelley (7) combining for 15 more. In all, 13 different players have reached paydirt for the Fightin’ Bulldogs this season. The team has only attempted one PAT kick, which was converted by Gerk. They have been successful 52 times on two-point tries, with Andersen being responsible for 16. Knode (9) and Gerk (8) have 17 between them.

Andersen leads the defense with 125 tackles, third most in the classification. Grant Statz is fifth in the state with 108 stops, and Kelley is tied for seventh with 104. Gerk (65) and Ozzy Coss (55) round out the top five tacklers on the squad. Coss shares the team lead in sacks with Maclin Tempel, with each having eight. That has them tied for fifth in the classification. 

The defense has recorded 29 takeaways, 17 on fumble recoveries. Knode and Kelley each have three of those recoveries, while Tempel, Coss, Keegan Colglazier, and Victor Knapp each have two. Tempel also has a blocked punt to his credit. David Avery has claimed five of the unit’s 12 interceptions, with Andersen having three.

Haxtun has scored five non-offensive touchdowns to date. Three have come on fumble returns, two by Kelley and the other by Tempel. Fryrear has a kick-return for a score, and Ryland Wolff has a punt return for TD.

Mancos beat Sanford for a second time this year last week to reach their first ever state football championship. PHOTO BY BEN BRADLEY / SPECIAL TO THE CORTEZ JOURNAL

Mancos (10-0) actually played three fewer games than Haxtun during the season, as the Bluejays received a forfeit from Dolores Huerta Prep late in the season. They also two other weeks in which their scheduled opponents were unable to field a team. But, when they have been on the pitch, the Bluejays have been very solid on both sides of the ball.

Not counting that forfeit victory, Mancos has two shutouts and has also held two other opponents to single digits. No one has scored more than 24 points against the Bluejays as they head into the title game. 

Conversely, their offense had only been held under 40 points once prior to the last two playoff games. After opening the postseason with a 59-12 win over Fowler, Mancos held off Dayspring Christian 33-24 in the quarterfinals. Last week, the Bluejays forced six Sanford turnovers in a 26-16 victory. They had won the regular season contest 60-24, with the Indians dealing with significant injuries at the time.

Despite only having nine games on the field, the Bluejays still have some impressive numbers on the defensive side of things. Ayden Matthews is 11th in eight-man with 101 tackles, and Chris Medina is 20th with 91 stops. Chase Moore is also in the top 25, having recorded 86 tackles so far. Kail Wayman (64) and Cole Dainty-Guilfoyle (41) complete the top five on the team.

Mason Goodwin sits inside the top-five of the classification with 12 sacks. That’s almost half of the team’s total in that category. Dainty-Guilfoyle and Lane Greenlee each have three. Of the team’s 18 takeaways, Wayman has been responsible for four (three interceptions, one fumble recovery), and he’s also registered a blocked punt. Moore and Dainty-Guilfoyle each have two interceptions, and Goodwin has two fumble recoveries. 

Offensively, Mancos averages close to 284 yards a game on the ground, led by Moore, who has 1846 yards and 28 touchdowns. Wayman (443 yards, six TD) and Matthews (384 yards, seven TD) have added more than 800 yards and 13 scores. 

Matthews has been very good when called upon to throw the ball, as the junior is completing close to 65% of his passes, for 827 yards and 12 touchdowns without an interception. Wayman has been on the receiving end of more than half of the team’s completions, as he’s snagged 25 catches for 503 yards and seven touchdowns. No one else has more than six receptions. James Wagoner is the only other player with more than 100 yards, checking in with 123. His two touchdowns are second to Wayman.

Moore (30) and Wayman (14) have combined for 44 of the team’s 56 touchdowns. Each has one non-offensive score under their belt. Moore has also been responsible for 10 of the 18 two-point conversions by the Bluejays. Evan Sehnert has connected on eight of 18 PAT kicks, and has also made a 20-yard field goal. 

Mancos is looking for its first state title in football, as the Bluejays are in the title game for the first time in program history. Prior to this run, the program only had four playoff wins. A victory on Friday would not only bring the program its first championship, but also match the number of postseason victories before this season.

Haxtun has won seven titles in 10 previous appearances, including three straight from 1989-91. This is their first trip to the title game since 2005, when they finished second to league rival Merino. The Fightin’ Bulldogs won their last title by beating Merino the previous season. 

This is the first time the two programs have met in the postseason, and it’s the first meeting of any kind between the two during the MaxPreps era (2004). A win by Mancos would send the championship hardware to the western half of the state for the first time since 1995, when Sangre de Cristo took it home. On the flip side, a win by Haxtun would be the 19th by a Plains division team in the last 25 years.