With only eight spots available in the postseason, a number of quality programs nervously awaited the release of the playoff bracket by CHSAA on Sunday morning. When it finally came out, seven of the eight positions belonged to teams in the Mountain (3), Plains (2), and Arkansas Valley (2) divisions. PHOTO BY MELANIE KINDVALL / OT SPORTSCHEK
The following preview of games is in bracket order. All games are scheduled for 1pm Saturday except for the Sanford-Mancos matchup which is slated for a 1:30pm kickoff that day.
#1 SEDGWICK COUNTY COUGARS (6-0) VS #8 CROWLEY COUNTY CHARGERS (3-1)
For the fifth time in the last six years, Sedgwick County is the top overall seed for the playoffs. The Cougars have outscored their first round opponent by a combined tally of 255-12 in their five previous appearances, including three shutouts. They are looking for a sixth consecutive state title, which would tie them for first place all-time in state history with Limon, who accomplished the feat between 1963 and 1968.
The Cougars outscored their regular season opponents 296-50 and did not allow anyone to score more than 16 points in a game. The defense posted two shutouts, giving them 11 in their current 23-game winning streak, dating back to 2018. Offensively, senior quarterback Jared Ehmke’s stats won’t jump off the page, but he guides the team with a steady hand. Kaleb Fowler has emerged as the go-to back, and his 14 touchdowns this season are among the leaders in the state.
Crowley County was a regular in the Class 1A postseason before narrowly missing out last year. The Chargers dropped to eight-man this season and immediately hit their stride, winning each of their first three contests. Their season was disrupted after the first two weeks by COVID issues and when they returned, they crammed two games into a short week. The first went well, as the Chargers defeated Springfield, but they came up short, 32-22, in the second contest against Fowler.
Despite only playing four games, Adam Schultz was seventh in the classification in rushing yards during the regular season, recording 820. The senior also scored nine touchdowns in his 79 carries. Tach Brewer added close to 300 yards through the air, and another 200 on the ground. Schultz topped the defense with 48 tackles this season, eight of them for loss, and he scored one of the Chargers’ two defensive scores on a pick-six. Case Buford supplied a scoop-and-score for the other.
#4 DOVE CREEK BULLDOGS (4-1) VS #5 RANGELY PANTHERS (6-0)
Three teams from the Mountain Division were ranked in the top-10 of the preseason coaches poll. Dove Creek was not one of them. However, the Bulldogs weren’t far off, as they garnered enough support to begin the season 14th. After outscoring their first three opponents 144-40, the Bulldogs were up to sixth and preparing for the big showdown with Sanford. Five turnovers cost Dove Creek dearly in that 36-12 loss, but they bounced right back to down Mancos 18-14, in what turned out to be their regular season finale.
The Bulldogs feature a three-headed rushing attack, led by Gage Bailey (716 yards, seven TDs) and Gauge Thompson (494 yards, eight TDs). Junior QB Chorbin Cressler has added 413 yards and four scores with his legs. Hayden Gray is the leading tackler for Dove Creek, checking into the contest with 68 stops, and Austin Beanland is tied for the state lead with eight sacks.
Building upon last season’s six win total, that included a fourth place finish in the Northwest, Rangely matched that victory total with a perfect 6-0 regular season, and a division crown. The Panthers are looking to make some noise in this postseason, after they were bounced in the opening round last season. They had several close calls down the stretch of the regular season, beating West Grand by two, Vail Christian by 16, and Gilpin County by eight last week.
The Panthers leaned heavily on Zane Varner in the running game, with the junior recording 129 of the team’s 287 carries. He piled up 920 yards and eight touchdowns. Anthony Lujan (338 yards), Keihlin Myers (242 yards), and Ryan Richens (239 yards) all proved to be effective at taking some of the load off Varner’s shoulders. Lujan is second on the defense with 65 tackles, trailing only Gabe Polley. Timothy Scoggins leads the squad with seven sacks.
Rangely has won four straight meetings with Dove Creek, including a 42-34 thriller last season. The Panthers led 42-26 when Cressler made things interesting. He scored on a 50-yard run in the final minute, and tossed the two-point pass to Bailey to get the Bulldogs within a score, but they could not recover the onside kick.
#2 SANFORD INDIANS (5-0) VS #7 MANCOS BLUEJAYS (3-1)
Usually, CHSAA tries their best to avoid league rematches in the opening round of any postseason. However, Sanford and Mancos did not meet during the regular season, as the Indians had to cancel their finale with Mancos due to COVID concerns. Mancos could have created a three-way tie for the Mountain title with a win.
Sanford, who outscored its opponents 244-46, is powered by junior running back Kelton Gartrell, who ran for more than 1400 yards and 23 scores last season. Like most teams in the classification, the Indians feature a run-first offense, and that helps the defense by limiting how many snaps the opponent gets. No one scored more than 14 points in a game against Sanford’s defense, and that unit only allowed one passing touchdown during the regular season.
Mancos had two of its final three games canceled by the opposition, and had to sweat things out while waiting for the brackets to be released. The 18 points scored by Dove Creek almost matched what the Bluejays had allowed in their first three games, combined. Like Sanford, their pass defense has been stingy, allowing two scores through the air, and none since week two.
Chase Moore churned out 791 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 72 carries during the regular season, and Christian Cova added 163 yards on 26 attempts. Cova’s biggest contributions came as a receiver (8/120/3) and tackler (36 solo, 42 total). Moore scored a pair of touchdowns on special teams and two more as a receiver, giving him 18 so far. Ayden Matthews has only completed 15 passes on the season, but eight have gone for TDs. Defensively, Colt Fury leads the way with 63 tackles, 48 solo.
Mancos had a four-game winning streak in the series snapped by the Indians last year, as Sanford claimed a 52-24 victory. Gartrell ran for 252 yards and three scores to lead the Indians, while Moore racked up 135 yards and three TDs for the Bluejays. Overall, Sanford has won seven of the last 11 meetings in the series.
#3 FOWLER GRIZZLIES (6-0) VS #6 MERINO RAMS (5-1)
Entering the season, opposing coaches picked Fowler as the #2 team in the rankings, trailing the last team to beat the Grizzlies, Sedgwick County. Fowler took that and ran with it, quite literally. The Grizzlies averaged more than 277 yards a game on the ground as they outscored their opponents 249-50. Most of the points scored against them came in the final two games of the regular season, 22 by Crowley County and 14 by Holly.
Six different runners finished the regular season with more than 100 yards, led by Jackson Bates (473 yards, nine touchdowns) and Damian Romero (420 yards, five TDs). Braxton Bates (222), Erick Hernandez (197), Joshua Daniels (140), and Antonio Aragon (129) round out that group. Romero also had a solid campaign throwing the ball, producing 322 yards and eight scores in five games. Gabriel Proctor leads the defense with 91 tackles, good for third in the classification during the regular season.
Merino spent most of the regular season on the road, as improvements to their field and surrounding facilities kept the Rams away from home until week five. Their lone loss came in that week five home opener, 32-0, against Sedgwick County. That point total marked a full third of what they allowed all season.
The ground game is the focus for the Rams, and sophomore QB Deacon Trenkle does a good job of directing things. He’s a talented dual-threat in the backfield, who also has power-runner Trent Elliott and speedster Andrew Frank joining him in that attack. Elliott worked his way back from a knee injury suffered last year against Dayspring Christian. Derrick Alber turned in a defensive performance for the record book early in the season, as he picked off four passes against Haxtun. It tied him for second most in a single game in state history, and was the first time an eight-man player had accomplished the feat since 2001.
This is the first meeting between the two programs since 2011. Fowler won a regular season match-up, 24-0, and then followed that with a 37-14 decision in the postseason. Merino won beat the Grizzlies the previous year.