AURORA | The third time proved to be the charm for the Cherokee Trail football team.
The Cougars finally broke through on their third trip to the semifinals of the state football playoffs, posting a physical 17-10 victory over Ralston Valley in a Class 5A semifinal on Saturday at Legacy Stadium that put them in their first-ever state championship game.
An 80-yard touchdown run by senior Sherman Thomas on the first offensive play of the second half put third-seeded Cherokee Trail (12-1) ahead for good and the Cougars defense shut down the Mustangs the rest of the way as they advanced to a matchup with fourth-seeded Valor Christian at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Sophomore Cameron Smith caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from junior Aric Johnson and Ryan Winke made a 26-yard field goal for coach Monte Thelen’s Cherokee Trail team, which lost to Monarch in the 4A semifinals in 2007 and fell to Regis Jesuit with a spot in the 2010 5A state title game on the line.
“I guess the third time was the charm; we just think it is outstanding for our program to get there and now it’s on to Valor,” Thelen said. “They are a juggernaut and everything people say they are. Obviously we’ll have our hands full, but we’ll play anybody in the state of Colorado.”
Thomas rushed for a game-high 113 yards for the Cougars, while Johnson passed for 110 yards and ran for 37 more.
The Cougars improved to 3-1 all-time against Ralston Valley, which finished its season 11-2, including 2-0 in postseason meetings.
The Mustangs — coming off a 22-20 overtime victory over No. 7 Pomona in the quarterfinals — came out of the gate strong, however. Ralston Valley took the opening possession 67 yards to the end zone in 10 plays, with Andrew Wingard rushing for a 2-yard touchdown to cap a drive that saw quarterback Jacob Knipp complete three of his four passes for 45 yards.
Smith fumbled on Cherokee Trail’s subsequent possession deep in its own territory, but the Cougars stuffed Knipp on fourth down to get the ball back.
The Cougars picked up 54 yards on their next offensive possession, only to see Winke’s 33-yard field goal attempt blocked by 6-foot-10 Ralston Valley lineman Dan Skipper.
The Mustangs marched down the field once more and threatened to double their lead when Cherokee Trail junior safety Evan White changed the game with his big hit on wide receiver Keenan Gibson in the end zone.
As Gibson tried to reel in a 16-yard pass from Knipp, White delivered a massive shot that jarred the ball free from Gibson, who remained face down in the end zone for several moments. He was eventually loaded onto a backboard and removed from the field by medical personnel, but raised his arm to signal the hushed crowd.
Ralston Valley settled for Collin Root’s successful 33-yard field goal on the next play to go up 10-0, but White’s hit jumpstarted the Cougars.
Cherokee Trail got back into the game with a 97-yard touchdown drive to close out the first half as Johnson used a mix of designed runs, scrambles and passes to move his team down the field.
Sophomore Jason Thompson caught two passes for 34 yards on the 15-play series, which concluded with a diving 10-yard touchdown catch for Smith, who was awarded the score after a discussion of the officials.
The score was huge because the Cougars knew they would have the opening possession of the second half as well.
Thomas made that possession count right away, taking a handoff on Cherokee Trail’s first offensive play of the third quarter, bounced it outside as the line set the edge and outraced a string of Ralston Valley defenders up the left sideline into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
“I knew I had to make a play for my team; I knew we had to turn this game around and make a difference, so it was just game time,” Thomas said. “I just had to make something out of it. … Our line has led us here. They are outstanding.”
Winke’s 26-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter made it a seven-point lead for the Cougars.
Cherokee Trail’s defense took care of the rest, as the Mustangs had just two possession in the second half and both ended in unsuccessful fourth down conversions.
Nic Bogulski swatted down Knipp’s passing attempt on fourth down on Ralston Valley’s first drive, while Jakob Byers was stopped short on a fourth down catch on the other.
Behind a veteran offensive line, the Cougars ran the last 5:42 off the clock as they converted three third downs with tough runs by Johnson, Smith and Thomas.
NOTES: Cherokee Trail and Valor Christian will play each other for the first time. … Coaches Monte Thelen of Cherokee Trail and Brent Vieselmeyer are scheduled to be part of a Wednesday press conference at Sports Authority Field at Mile High scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. Drew Goodman of ROOT Sports is scheduled to moderate.
Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at [email protected] or 303-750-7555
(3) CHEROKEE TRAIL 17, (2) RALSTON VALLEY 10
Score by quarters:
Ralston Valley 7 3 0 0 — 10
Cherokee Trail 0 7 7 3 — 17
Ralston Valley — Andrew Wingard 2 yard run (Collin Root kick), 7:20
Ralston Valley — Root 33 yard field goal, 7:43; Cherokee Trail — Cameron Smith 10 yard pass from Aric Johnson (Ryan Winke kick), 6.8
Cherokee Trail — Sherman Thomas 80 yard run (Winke kick), 11:45
Cherokee Trail — Winke 26 yard field goal, 11:55
Ralston Valley: Carlos Gonzales 8-32, Jacob Knipp 7-18, Andrew Wingard 5-3, John Morales 1-3, Jakob Buys 3-(minus 2)
Cherokee Trail: Sherman Thomas 11-113, Cameron Smith 15-61, Aric Johnson 14-37, Darian Belt 3-11, Cameron Currington 1-2
Ralston Valley: Knipp 12-21, 134 yards
Cherokee Trail: Johnson 8-10, 110 yards, 1 touchdown
Ralston Valley: Spencer Svejcar 6-84, Gonzales 1-17, Morales 1-17, Hunter Price 1-11, Collin Root 2-8, Buys 1-1, Wingard 1-(minus 4)
Cherokee Trail: Jason Thompson 3-58, Brandon Barry 2-28, Smith 2-19, Thomas 1-5