AURORA | With a trip to the Class 5A state championship game hanging in the balance, Eaglecrest football coach Mike Schmitt made a calculated gamble, same as he has on several occasions in the past.
Schmitt knew his defense wouldn’t hold up for much longer in overtime after four-plus quarters of pounding against an ultra-physical Columbine team.
So Schmitt put the ball in the hands of his offense in the most pressure of situations, in double overtime trailing by seven points. The Raptors came through as senior Jalen Mergerson threw a touchdown pass and subsequent two-point conversion to senior Theryne Sandoval-Jimenez to deliver a thrilling 32-31 victory at Legacy Stadium.
“We weren’t going to go again, I can tell you that,” an elated Schmitt said. “It was either win or lose, our boys know that and we don’t second guess. We’ve lost a few that way and we’ve won a few that way. This happened to be a big win.”
That big win sends the program to its first 5A state championship game since 1993, when Eaglecrest won its one and only all-time state crown.
The second-seeded and still undefeated Raptors (13-0) will play No. 4 Pomona (11-2) at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos. The Panthers downed No. 8 Grandview 42-20 to prevent an all-Aurora championship game.
“Our coaches have been talking all week that pressure either makes diamonds or it crushes you,” Mergerson said. “That’s what happened here. We had a lot of pressure and we needed to go make a play and got it done.
“The defense had been fighting all game; it’s a tough offense to stop for that long and eventually it was going to give. As an offense, we just had to go make a play.”
That play came immediately after Mergerson hit Sandoval-Jimenez with a fade in the end zone for his second touchdown of the game on the first play of Eaglecrest’s second overtime possession to make it a one-point game.
The Raptors changed formations, but the target ended up the same on the two-point try. Mergerson rolled to his right and threw to Sandoval-Jimenez just across the goal line for the winner.
“When I ran my route, everyone flowed away, I cut back and it was there,” Sandoval-Jimenez said.
“I knew I had everybody believing in me, so when they said ‘your number is being called,’ I had to come through.”
Eaglecrest built a lead as large as 17 points in the first half, only to see the Rebels edge back in slowly, but surely.
Columbine scored 10 points in the fourth quarter and tied it up at 17 points apiece with just 36.9 seconds remaining in regulation on Logan DeArment’s short field goal.
The Rebels’ physical front wore down Eaglecrest’s defense in the later stages of the game and it showed in overtime, when they scored two touchdowns on just two plays in each of their possessions.
Another calculated gamble for the Raptors came on their first overtime possession when they faced a 4th-and-goal from the 1 yard-line and opted for a sneak by Mergerson that was successful.
Down seven in the second overtime, Mergerson hit Sandoval-Jimenez with a beautiful fade in the corner of the end zone and found him again on a jump pass for the winning two-point conversion, which sent the Raptors and their fans streaming onto the field in celebration.
Sandoval-Jimenez also caught a touchdown pass early in the second quarter from Mergerson, which put Eaglecrest in front 17-0.
The Raptors marched 80 yards on the opening possession of the game with senior Kenny Wantings rushing for a 17-yard score and though they came up short on a 4th-and-goal from the 1 yard-line early in the second quarter, seniors Kyante Christian and Victor Garnes stuffed Columbine running back Tanner Hollens in the end zone for a safety.
Garnes, Eaglecrest’s dynamic two-way playmaker, suffered a shoulder injury late in the first half and went to the lockerroom before returning in the second half. He played sparingly on offense and more as a safety for the remainder of the game.
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel
(2) EAGLECREST 32, (3) POMONA 31 (2OT)
Score by quarters:
Pomona 0 7 0 10 7 7 — 31
Eaglecrest 7 10 0 0 7 8 — 32
Eaglecrest — Kenny Wantings 17 yard run (Theryne Sandoval-Jimenez kick), 8:51
Eaglecrest — Safety (Pomona tackled in end zone), 10:30
Eaglecrest — Sandoval-Jimenez 26 yard pass from Jalen Mergerson (Wantings run), 8:39
Columbine — Logan Dearment 24 yard run (Dearment kick), 1:28
Columbine — Justin Lohrenz 17 yard pass from Dearment (Dearment kick), 9:29
Columbine — Dearment 29 yard field goal, 36.9
Overtime No. 1
Eaglecrest — Mergerson 1 yard run (Sandoval-Jimenez kick)
Columbine — Conner Snow 3 yard run (Dearment kick)
Overtime No. 2
Columbine — Dearment 1 yard run (Dearment kick)
Eaglecrest — Sandoval-Jimenez 10 yard pass from Mergerson (Sandoval-Jimenez pass from Mergerson)