Aric Johnson’s only watched film of last season’s Class 5A state championship football game once.
Cherokee Trail’s senior quarterback shudders when thinking back to what happened last December at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, when the Cougars were shut out in an agonizing 9-0 loss to Valor Christian.
The loss still stings coach Monte Thelen and his Cougars, but the large group of returning players is focused on getting another shot.
“There were just so many things we could have done better,” Johnson recalled of the one time he watched the final, in which the Centennial League champion Cougars were shut out for the only time in a 12-2 regular season.
“This season is about redemption,” he added.
Thelen has had many chances to look back on how his team played in the championship game — which was scoreless until Valor Christian scored nine points in the fourth quarter — and he has emphasized to his team that they can get back there again if they do things right.
“We talk about going back a lot; there is a lot to draw from that experience,” said Thelen, whose team opens the 2013 season at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 30 against Chatfield at Jeffco Stadium.
“Our players returning are better players from that experience and the hard work they put in is where that takes us,” he continued. “We hope that experience was a positive one for our kids, and we think it was, so we’ll try to build on it.”
Given the type of talent that is back in the fold, few doubt Cherokee Trail has the ability to make another strong run at the state title.
The Cougars come into the season ranked No. 2 — behind Valor Christian — in the preseason CHSAANow.com coaches/media poll with a total of 12 returning starters, including eight on the defensive side of the football.
Cherokee Trail has boasted many strong defenses in its decade of varsity football, but last season’s unit allowed just 162 points in 14 games, an average of 11.6.
Led by safety Evan White, the Cougars really opened some eyes when they held Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year Christian McCaffrey and Valor Christian scoreless for three quarters in the title game. The Eagles managed only a controversial 1-yard touchdown and a late field goal aided by a penalty.
White, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound safety, committed to the University of Colorado prior to the season and is a leader of a very experienced defensive group.
“We have five people on defense that have been playing for three years on varsity, so that experience is really going to help,” said White, who led Aurora players with seven interceptions last season to go with 80 tackles.
Seniors Kaleb Barnum, Cameron Currington and Mar’Keith Bailey key a fast, aggressive group of linebackers, while Jacob Martin and Nik Bogulski can get after the quarterback up front and White and Thomas Thortvedt form an experienced tandem at safety.
Going against that defense in practice is a major advantage for Cherokee Trail’s offense, including Johnson, who grew a lot during his 14 starts last season.
“I believe we have the best defense in the state, so for me to go against them in practice is the best possible option,” said Johnson, who passed for 1,546 yards and rushed for 528 more last season.
The experience at the skill positions — with junior running back Cameron Smith, White and junior Jason Thompson returning at wide receiver among others — should allow Cherokee Trail to be a little more complex on offense this season.
Senior Colt Jones, the only returning starter from last season’s offensive line, is trying to help a new group get up to speed.
The talent is there, so Thelen is looking forward to how his group works toward its title goal.
“We’d like to be league champions and we haven’t won the state championship, so obviously that’s also a goal,” Thelen said.
“We’ve been right there a couple of times, but that’s what we need to do to really put ourselves on the map. Every year is a new year and we’re going to go at it hard.”
CHEROKEE TRAIL COUGARS
Coach: Monte Thelen, 11th season
Last year: 12-2 overall, 4-1 in 5A Centennial League (lost in 5A state championship game)
Players to watch: Evan White, 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, S, sr.; Aric Johnson, 6-0, 170, QB, sr.; Colt Jones, 6-6, 300, OT, sr.; Cameron Smith, 6-0, 170, RB, jr.; Jason Thompson, 6-0, 160, WR, jr.; Thomas Thortvedt, 6-1, 180, S, sr.; Kaleb Barnum, 5-11, 200, LB, sr.; Cameron Currington, 5-10, 175, RB/LB, sr.; Jacob Martin, 6-3, 215, DL, sr.; Mar’Keith Bailey, 5-10, 175, LB, sr.; Nik Bogulski, 6-1, 185, DE, sr.; Mason Bode, 5-10, 155, DB, sr.
2013 outlook: Coach Monte Thelen’s Cherokee Trail football program has pushed forward every season in the past decade and extended a streak of postseason appearances to eight, nearly reaching the pinnacle before losing a hard-fought 9-0 decision to Valor Christian in the Class 5A state championship game. The big season, plus a large freshman class arriving at the schools, gave Thelen a huge pool of an estimated 150 players to choose from. With potentially the largest returning group of fast, strong, physical athletes in Colorado — plus a coaching staff of veterans that returns largely intact — the Cougars could very well return to Sports Authority Field at Mile High when this season’s title is on the line Nov. 30. Cherokee Trail — which won the Centennial League championship last year — has 12 starters back, eight on the defense and four on the offense. Bruising safety Evan White, who verbally committed to the University of Colorado in the offseason, is the lynchpin of a veteran defense that allowed just 11.6 points per game last season. White led Aurora with seven interceptions a year ago and combines with fellow senior Thomas Thortvedt to give Cougars a pair of experienced safeties who will need to be accounted for by offenses, while a core of linebackers featuring seniors Kaleb Barnum, Cameron Currington and Mar’Keith Bailey is plenty fast and physical as well. Up front, seniors Jacob Martin and Nik Bogulski can get after the quarterback with regularity. Last season, Cherokee Trail had a veteran offensive line and inexperienced skill players, but the roles are reversed this season. Up front, only senior Colton Jones — a stout 6-foot-6, 300-pounder — returns from last season’s physical group. Aric Johnson grew as a quarterback every game last season and finished with 2,000 yards of total offense and 15 touchdowns. He’s again a threat to run and has improved his throwing, with White and junior WR Jason Thompson among a handful of returning pass catchers that he knows well. Working junior RB Cameron Smith is also back, coming off a season in which he piled up nearly 900 yards rushing and had 240 more receiving with a combined nine touchdowns. The Cougars need to replace a talented punter in Josh Welchert and place kicker in Ryan Winke, but should still be strong on special teams.
Quoting the coach: “One of the things we’re talking to our kids about is that the success of this year’s team comes with the work and cohesivness we develop with this group. Accomplishments in the past are great, but it’s not going to help us against anybody this season. We have to go out and earn it and build it, much like we had to build it last year and the year before. I think there is some confidence in the fact that we’re returning a number of guys who played roles on a successful team, which we didn’t have much of a year ago.”
2013 schedule: Home games in all caps (played at Legacy Stadium): Friday, Aug. 30 — at Chatfield, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 7 — FORT COLLINS, 1 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 14 – vs. Gateway at Aurora Public Schools Stadium, 1 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 21 — REGIS JESUIT, 1 p.m.; Thursday, Sept. 26 – SMOKY HILL, 7 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 4 — CHERRY CREEK, 7 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 11 – GRANDVIEW, 7 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 18 — vs. Eaglecrest at Legacy Stadium, 7 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 25 — vs. Overland at Stutler Bowl, 7 p.m.
Courtney Oakes is Sports Editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or email@example.com. Twitter: @aurorasports. Facebook: Aurora Prep Sentinel