Football: Cherokee Trail moves a step from shot at state title for third time

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Twice in the past five years, coach Monte Thelen’s Cherokee Trail football team has dreamed of playing on the Denver Broncos home field.

Both times — in 2007 in Class 4A and 2010 in 5A — the Cougars were denied the privilege, which also included a shot at a state title.

Thelen’s group has another crack at it this season, as a gritty 17-14 victory over Centennial League rival Eaglecrest on Nov. 17 pushed No. 3 Cherokee Trail into the 5A semifinals.

A win over second-seeded Ralston Valley in a 1 p.m. contest Nov. 24 at Legacy Stadium would finally net Thelen’s group a shot at the state championship that is the next step in the development of Aurora’s latest elite program.

“We’re going to savor the fact that this is our third semifinal in six years, which speaks well of our program,” said Thelen, who owns a 7-4 record in five trips to the 5A playoffs.

“Hopefully one of these times we can get to (Sports Authority Field),” he added.

The semifinal round has only meant heartbreak thus far for the Cherokee Trail program, which has dropped its two final-four contests by a combined total of seven points.

In its 4A swan song in 2007, the Cougars fell 6-0 in overtime to a Monarch team they had beaten in the regular season. In 2010, Cherokee Trail lost to Regis Jesuit 21-20 with a shot at the 5A state title game on the line.

Cherokee Trail’s current chance to break through and make the state championship game comes against Ralston Valley, which it beat 14-2 in the 2010 playoffs prior to the matchup with Regis Jesuit. The Mustangs (11-1) knocked off No. 7 Pomona 22-20 in overtime Nov. 16.

“We have a history with Ralston Valley; they are an outstanding team, so it will be a tough game,” said Thelen, whose team will play a semifinal at home for the first time.

The Cougars expect a close game in the semifinals, which would suit them just fine considering how they’ve performed in clutch situations the past two weeks.

Behind a veteran offensive line led by Matt Barden and Garrett Zimmerman, junior quarterback Aric Johnson has led go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter against Mullen in a 24-21 win in the second round and also against Eaglecrest. Against the Raptors, it took a 92-yard march that stretched 15 plays and used up nearly eight minutes, with Johnson scoring on a 3-yard keeper.

“The seniors on the line take care of the backs; we always have a word of the drive and this time it was ‘stay calm,’” said Johnson, who also threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Barry in the first quarter.

“We’re ready for the semifinals,” he added. “It’s a huge step, but we knew this was our year, so now we’re going to finish it.”

Cherokee Trail’s defense has also found a way to make big plays in late-game situations.

Junior safety Evan White had a huge hit on Eaglecrest’s last-gasp drive and came up with an interception to essentially seal the victory.

“The defense is trying to keep things together,” White said. “We need to cut down on the turnovers and work on special teams a little more, but we’re ready.

“We’ve worked really hard to get to this point. We’re making a tradition.”

Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at [email protected] or 303-750-7555