AURORA | A win over Mullen is satisfying enough, but especially when it brings with it a trip to the Class 5A state quarterfinals.
Junior quarterback Aric Johnson scored on a 1-yard keeper with just under two minutes left and third-seeded Cherokee Trail rallied for a 24-21 victory over the 14th-seeded Mustangs Friday night in a 5A state round state football playoff clash at Legacy Stadium.
Johnson’s touchdown capped a 13-play, 80-yard drive to bring the Cougars back from a four-point deficit and give them their first-ever victory over Mullen in five all-time meetings between the two former league rivals. Cherokee Trail posted its 10th win of the season and moved on to the 5A quarterfinals, which it will face the winner of Saturday’s contest between No. 22 Eaglecrest and No. 6 Chaparral.
Mullen (6-5), which scored all three of its touchdowns in the second half following turnovers, saw its earliest exit from the postseason since 1997.
Sherman Thomas caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from Johnson in the first quarter, Cameron Currington rushed for a 4-yard touchdown and Ryan Winke nailed a 21-yard field goal in the final seconds of the second quarter as the Cougars look a 17-0 lead into the lockerroom.
The second half was a different story, however, as the Mustangs finally began to have success stopping Cougars sophomore Cameron Smith — who had 109 yards rushing in the first half — and then took advantage of Cherokee Trail miscues to get back into the game.
A muffed punt set Mullen up at the Cherokee Trail 33 late in the third quarter and it took just six plays for Conor Brady to reach the end zone from five yards out. Smith fumbled on the Cougars’ next possession to give the Mustangs another short field and they capitalized with Adam Elbeck’s 1-yard run on the fourth play of the fourth quarter to make it a 17-14 game.
Johnson was intercepted by Mullen’s Ryan Gomerdinger deep in Cherokee Trail territory just two plays later and the Mustangs needed just seven plays to get into the end zone and take their first lead of the game at 21-17 with 5:30 remaining.
The reeling Cougars finally got into an offensive rhythm on their next possession, as Johnson used his legs and his arm to complete passes to Brandon Barry and Evan White and quickly get Cherokee Trail into Mullen territory with 4:17 left. White picked up a big third down with a tough catch, Smith ate up 11 yards on a screen and a Thomas sweep got the ball to the Mullen 2 yard-line. Johnson cashed in two plays later to put the Cougars back in the lead.
Mullen’s last-gasp possession ended with four straight incompletions by quarterback Gasper Dominici, including a fourth-down pass to Gomerdinger that was broken up by Jackson Burrell.
The Mustangs picked up three personal fouls in the closing seconds for unsportsmanlike conduct, which helped Cherokee Trail run out the clock.
Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at email@example.com or 303-750-7555
(3) CHEROKEE TRAIL 24, (14) MULLEN 21
Score by quarters:
Mullen 0 0 7 14 — 21
Cherokee Trail 7 10 0 7 — 24
Cherokee Trail — Sherman Thomas 21 yard pass from Aric Johnson (Ryan Winke kick)
Cherokee Trail — Cameron Currington 6 yard run (Winke kick), 5;37; Cherokee Trail: Winke 31 yard field goal, 3.5
Mullen — Conor Brady 5 yard run (John Scott kick), 2:18
Mullen — Adam Elbeck 1 yard run (Scott kick), 10:16; Mullen — Brady 4 yard run (Scott kick), 5:30; Cherokee Trail — Johnson 1 yard run (Winke kick), 1:52