The 2018 football campaign came to a close last Saturday with Valor Christian (5A), Loveland (4A) and Palmer Ridge (3A) joining La Junta (2A), Limon (1A), Sedgwick County (8man) and Stratton/Liberty (6man) as state champions. Now Colorado Preps starts the post-season process by naming our coaches of the year. As in the past, our selections most often look past state champions to find leaders who have turned their programs around and picked up rare post-season success.
Our selection for Coach of the Year in the smallest division goes to Joel Johnson of Mountain Valley. He led the Indians to a perfect regular season (8-0) before a tough opening playoff loss to Granada ended their season. Mountain Valley won just two games the previous season and was winless in 2016 so the turnaround has been quick. Coach Johnson led his team to their first playoff appearance since 2005 and to their most victories in the MaxPreps era (since 2004).
Several other coaches deserve recognition as well including John King of Fleming, Manzanola’s Scott Egan and Manual Gonzales JR of Granada.
King did not have a senior on his roster and opened the season 1-3 but then strung together six straight wins to reach the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year. They also picked up a playoff win over Cheyenne Wells in the first round.
Manzanola struggled near the end of the season but the Bobcats (5-4) still earned their first post-season appearance since 2005. They also recorded the most wins since that season while landing a league championship.
Gonzales took over the reins from his father and guided the Bobcats to six wins and a playoff victory over Mountain Valley in their first year of six-man football. The Bobcats won just two games the previous season.
This was a very tough call but we broke from tradition to name Sedgwick County’s Chris Michel as our Coach of the Year in eight-man. We rarely select a state championship coach for our honor but the Cougars jumped into rare air by winning a fourth-consecutive crown. They’re just the third eight-man team to do so (Hugo & Stratton) and their four straight titles are now tied for third all-time with those two clubs and Palisade. Only Limon (6) and Valor Christian (5) have more consecutive championships.
It’s the second straight year Michel has won the award but again he’s taking the Cougars into territory very few football programs have seen.
The race though was close with Kelvin Thorne of Pikes Peak Christian. Thorne took the Eagles into the playoffs for just the second time in school history and reached the state semifinals before a loss to Hoehne kept them out of the championship game. Along the way they upset top-seeded West Grand. The Eagles (10-2) also improved their win total by five games over 2017.
In addition, we would like to give attention to Paul Lowe of Front Range Christian, Paul Fortunato of Rangely and Josh Gardner of Mancos. Lowe directed Front Range to six wins in their first season of eight-man football and into the playoffs for the just second time in school history. They won just one game in 2017. Gardner led Mancos to the post-season for the fourth straight year; something that had not been done at the school before. Fortunato directed Rangely (9-2) to just the third winning season since 2004 and their first playoff win since 2003. The Panthers had collected just six wins in the three previous years combined.
Jay Kersey of Colorado Springs Christian wins our award in Class 1A. The Lions entered the 2018 season with just one playoff win in school history but picked up two wins to reach the semifinals this year. They moved past Monte Vista (51-30) and Florence (13-10) to earn their first-ever state semifinal appearance. Kersey also led the Lions to 10 wins; an improvement of four from 2017.
Other coaches to receive consideration included Dusty Sprague of Holyoke, Tom Creech of Estes Park and Jeremy Nix of Florence. Sprague continued his good work of rebuilding the Dragons program as they collected seven wins to earn their first playoff bid since 2012. They also registered their most wins in the MaxPreps era (since 2004).
Creech directed the Bobcats to a 4-5 record and while still below five hundred, the program had just three wins over the previous three seasons combined. The four victories were also the most for Estes Park since 2012.
Nix led Florence to eight wins; six more than 2017. The Huskies also toppled Wray in the playoffs for their first post-season win since 2013.
This was another good race between several high-level candidates but our selection goes to Matt Luttrell of Salida. The Spartans downed Aspen 33-20 in the first round to score their first post-season victory since 2006. The nine wins are also a long climb from the two victories they posted just two years ago (2016). That also marked the most wins for the Spartans in the MaxPreps era.
Englewood’s Mike Campbell ran a close second in our consideration. Coming over from Arapahoe, Campbell quickly turned the Pirates into a winner as they finished the season with a record of 7-2. That’s the most wins since 2010 and was an improvement of three from the previous year.
Jeff Van Winkle of Resurrection Christian and Carl Frerichs of Basalt also had banner years. Van Winkle took over a program that reached the state semifinals the year before and got them back there this season. He also won his first 11-games as a head coach and did not experience a setback until the tough loss to Platte Valley. Frerichs guided the Longhorns to just their third playoff win in school history as they knocked off D’Evelyn (26-14) in round one. It’s also the first time the Longhorns have posted playoff wins in back-to-back seasons. A third consecutive post-season appearance is also a first for the Longhorns program.
And while he took over a solid program with tremendous history, Ty Buderus of La Junta should deserve some attention as well. He guided the Tigers to a state title in his first year in charge of the program and became the third member of his family to win a state championship; joining his father Mark and brother Clint.
Again, there are several great candidates across the division but our pick for Coach of the Year is Al Melo of Harrison. The Panthers have been a solid program for many years but they finally got over the post-season hurdle as they beat Holy Family for their first-ever playoff win. Harrison was 0-7 in the playoffs before the victory and had lost every game by at least 14 points. Their 11-wins were also the most in school history.
Others who deserve high praise include Jesse German of Green Mountain, Travis Peeples of Frederick and Derrick Martin of Thomas Jefferson. German, in his first year in charge of the Rams, led them to their first playoff win since 2004. They also collected a league championship and won five more games (9) than in 2017.
Frederick won just one game in 2016 but Peeples has led the Warriors to 14 over the past two. This season, they earned their first trip to the playoffs since 2013 and in the double-overtime loss to Discovery Canyon, just missed out on posting their first post-season win since 2011.
Martin continues to make Thomas Jefferson a consistent threat in Class 3A as they won eight games for the third consecutive season.
We think this is an easy choice as Michael Silva of Skyline is our Coach of the Year. The Falcons had a magical run to the state championship game where they fell short against Loveland but that loss shouldn’t dismiss an otherwise great campaign. The Falcons made the playoffs for just the second time since 2000 and their first-round victory was their first since landing the championship in 1999. They also collected a major win over perennial power Pine Creek in the state quarterfinals.
The list of nominees in this division is long as Jason Renouf of Greeley West, Cameron Ross of Fruita Monument, Shawn Marsh of Grand Junction Central and Scott Grinde of Air Academy also deserve recognition.
Renouf directed the Spartans to a league championship and their nine wins were four more than in 2017. Their win over Standley Lake (35-31) was just their fourth in the playoffs since 2009.
Ross took over from Todd Casebier and kept Fruita Monument rolling right along which is sometimes more difficult than rebuilding a program. The Wildcats finished 9-3 including a nice win over Grand Junction Central in the playoffs. They lost to eventual state champion Loveland in the state quarterfinals.
Despite the loss to Fruita Monument, Central recorded their most wins (7-4) since gaining eight victories in 2004. The playoff appearance was just the second for the Warriors since 2009.
Air Academy ended up 7-3 but missed out on a playoff appearance but the win total was the most since they finished 10-2 in 2007. Grinde has guided the Kadets to 13 wins over the past two seasons after the program managed just seven total wins in the previous four campaigns.
This division probably marked the easiest decision for us as Todd Casebier of Castle View is our run-away winner. The Sabercats (8-4) earned their first playoff trip since 2014 and their first post-season victory since 2011 and just their third in school history. All those accomplishments this year after the Sabercats picked up just one win in 2017. For Casebier, it continues his history of quickly turning programs into contenders following up his other success stories at Montrose and Fruita Monument.
Other coaches with great 2018 campaigns include Tom Thenell of Smoky Hill, Garrett Looney of Eaglecrest and Doug Nisenson of ThunderRidge.
Thenell took over a program with just 12 total wins since the start of the 2012 season and directed them to a 10-1 campaign and playoff appearance.
Looney was forced into head coaching duties when Dustin Delaney abruptly left the Eaglecrest program after just one game. He turned away all the outside noise and pushed the Raptors to 10 wins before they ended the season with a tough playoff loss to Grandview.
ThunderRidge was 3-7 in 2017 but this year improved to nine wins in just the second season for Nisenson. They earned their first playoff win since 2015 and their most wins since finished 11-2 in 2004.
In addition to our selections, congratulations go to Toby Kechter of Stratton/Liberty, Mike O’Dwyer of Limon, La Junta’s Ty Buderus, Tom Pulford of Palmer Ridge, Loveland’s Wayne McGinn and Ed McCaffrey of Valor Christian for earning state championships.