So, who can stop the Eagles?
This old record may sound broken at this point, but there’s no need to adjust the dial. Once again, the Eagles of Pueblo East High are dancing to the same triumphant tune as the incumbent Class 3A champions and the No. 1 team in the preseason poll. East enters the 2017 campaign riding high off the success of another magical run in which they reeled off 11 straight wins, toppled their longtime intra-city rival to win the beloved Cannon, and cruised through the title game in lopsided fashion.
Pueblo East is no stranger to the spotlight at this point, though they enter the 2017 campaign with plenty of question marks — not that those have ever given coach Andy Watts’ squad pause before.
While Watts returns to provide some highly sought-after consistency to Belmont after a carousel that produced three titles in three years under three different head coaches, he also has to find a way to replace the Class 3A player of the year (running back Bryson Torres) and their top defensive stalwart (defensive end Josh Tellez), along with a number of other important playmakers. Still, the South-Central League favorites reload with a mixture of youth and championship-savvy veterans.
At quarterback, the Eagles at least have stability. Junior Luc Andrada returns to the helm as one of the most consistent and promising gunslingers in the state, having thrown for over 1,800 yards with 13 touchdowns in leading the Eagles to the championship in his first season as the starter.
Andrada is also prone to flash his dangerous speed, which is all-state caliber in its own right (he placed second in Class 4A in the 100 meter dash last spring), as he rushed for nearly 400 yards with seven touchdowns a season ago.
Up front, however, Andrada will call signals behind a fresh mix of starting linemen, including three new starters, who collectively will face the fire immediately in their opening contest against Longmont on Sept. 1.
And the schedule doesn’t get much easier from there.
The top-ranked Eagles tangle with the likes of the Trojans (3A No. 7), Pueblo West (4A No. 10), and of course Discovery Canyon (3A No. 2) in the first three weeks of the season.
The week three meeting with the Thunder is possibly the most anticipated of the early schedule for both sides, as it was Discovery Canyon that Andrada and the Eagles toppled 35-6 in last year’s title game. In fact, the Sept. 14 showdown between the returning finalists will be more than just a title game rematch. It will be their 12th meeting since 2010, with the Eagles holding a 7-4 advantage, including a 4-0 record in the playoffs.
As for replacing Torres, look for junior Kain Medrano to take on a bigger role offensively after making noise as a kick returner and safety a season ago.
And though the Eagles enter the season ranked No. 1, there are no shortage of contenders among the 3A ranks. The South-Central League alone features a pair of other returning playoff teams in Pueblo County and Durango, the latter of which, led by Gavin Mestas (six interceptions), boasts a fearsome secondary which snagged 21 picks last year. Other S-CL contenders include Pueblo Central, Durango, Harrison, and Sierra. Here’s how the rest of the field shakes out.
The teams: No. 2 Discovery Canyon, No. 9 Lewis-Palmer, Canon City, Falcon, Mitchell, Woodland Park
The outlook: Thunder, playoff tested and battle ready in their own right, hope to turn the tides of fortune in their favor this season. Senior Trevor Ivy returns as the leading rusher from a squad that was an offensive juggernaut for much of last season, rushing for over 4,000 yards as a unit. Ivy himself produced 11 touchdowns with over 800 yards for the Thunder last season, and provides stability on an offense that will be searching for leadership early on. The Thunder are the pacesetters in the Southern League and open up with a contest against 4A No. 7 Fruita Monument on Sept. 2.
Up the road, Lewis-Palmer is coming off its first 10 win season in well over a decade and hopes to build off that success with another playoff run. The Rangers return leading rusher Dieudonne Chea (1,290 yards, 16 TDs) to help them through a season gauntlet that features an opener against Mead and follows with nonleague contests against returning playoff squads in crosstown rival Palmer Ridge and Pueblo County.
East Metro
The teams: No. 10 Palmer Ridge, Denver North, Kennedy, Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Vista PEAK
The outlook: This presidential league is currently governed by Palmer Ridge, the Monument-based high school which returns its gunslinger in Ty Evans. Evans, a second team all-state pick last year, threw for a whopping 3,130 yards with 30 touchdowns against just five interceptions, proving he is efficient and calm under pressure. The Bears also get three of their leading receivers back and make a strong case as the favorites of the East Metro League race. Their slate opens Sept. 1 against Sand Creek.
Meanwhile, Vista PEAK’s Derrick Smashum smashed up opposing defenses to the tune of 2,889 yards and 40 scores last season and could lead the upstart Buffaloes into the conversation this year, though Thomas Jefferson (8-2 a season ago) may have a thing or two to say about that first.
The teams: No. 3 Holy Family, No. 5 Mead, Berthoud, Erie, Frederick, Roosevelt
The outlook: Second team all-state quarterback Stone Samaras returns to lead Holy Family on a title conquest of its own. And the Tigers certainly have the weapons to do it. Samaras, fresh off a sophomore campaign in which he tossed 33 touchdowns and eclipsed 2,794 passing yards, gets a top target back in big-bodied receiver Kyle Helbig (56 rec., 810 yards) and has line stability thanks to fellow second team all-stater Seth Wilden. The returning Tri-Valley League champs open with a Zero Week showdown with Class 4A Mountain View on Friday.
On paper, Mead may have been one of the most overlooked teams last season. On the field, they were as good as any of them. That was shown with the No. 11 seed Mavericks making a run to the state semifinals, and this year the Mavs will likely be shown a little more respect with one of the most terrifying offensive threats in all of Class 3A. First team all-state running back Nathan Mackey (1,781 yards, 13 TDs) returns to the fold as the top returning rusher in any classification. With other offensive weapons like Tyler Keys and defensive studs like Evan Hansen and Trace Lindemann back, Mead should be considered a formidable threat coming out of the Tri-Valley League. The Mavs open with No. 9 Lewis-Palmer on Sept. 1.
The teams: No. 4 Silver Creek, No. 6 Fort Morgan, No. 7 Longmont, Centaurus, Northridge, Thompson Valley
The outlook: The Raptors reeled off 12 straight wins before falling to Discovery Canyon in the state semifinals a year ago. Nothing like a little motivation. Silver Creek, led by senior running back Andriek Knechtel (1,330 yards, 12 TDs), is looking to defend its Northern League crown and finish what it started a year ago. The Raptors kick off their season playing up a classification as well, taking on Class 4A Dakota Ridge on Aug. 31.
The Mustangs of Fort Morgan, meanwhile, will be gunning with Silver Creek and Longmont for the right to be crowned as the Northern League champion come November. And as they’re led by two-way superstar Trey McBride, a first team all-state selection a year ago who tallied 751 reception yards and 11 touchdowns to go with a whopping 30 tackles for loss from the defensive end position, Fort Morgan figures to have the horses to challenge for more than just league supremacy. The Mustangs open up against Brush on Sept. 1.
Longmont, which opens against defending champ Pueblo East, was the only team outside of the Eagles to receive a first-place vote in the CHSAA preseason poll. That’s no fluke. The Trojans get dual threat QB Oakley Dehning back to lead the charge, while Drake Engelking and second team all-state defender Austin Hassler round out a core group of upperclassmen with playoff savvy.
Western Slope
The teams: No. 8 Palisade, Battle Mountain, Eagle Valley, Glenwood Springs, Rifle, Summit
The outlook: Don’t forget about those squads on the other side of the mountains. Palisade’s Austin Bernal and his 12 rushing touchdowns led the Bulldogs to yet another playoff berth last season, and the streak isn’t likely to end here. Palisade may be the Western Slope favorites, but don’t count out Rifle, which just three years ago was in the title game. Palisade opens up Friday against Grand Junction Central, while Rifle kicks off against Basalt on the same night. The two meet in the season finale at Palisade on Nov. 3. Mark your calendars accordingly.
West Metro
The teams: Alameda, Conifer, Evergreen, Green Mountain, Lutheran, Skyview
The outlook: The top two defenders (in terms of tackles) hail from the West Metro League, making this a stout, if not wide open, league to contend against. Alameda’s Joshua Nagao (157 tackles) returns as the league’s top run stopper, though Conifer claimed the league title a year ago led by linebacker Kasim Rana’s 151 tackles. The Lobos, however, lost most of their offensive weapons from that run. Evergreen and Skyview should also be considered challengers for league supremacy here, which would go a long way towards the all-important RPI standings.