For the past two seasons, the Eaglecrest football team has been determined to control its own fate on the field.
Since the Raptors missed out on the 2015 Class 5A state playoffs because of the effect of another team’s transgressions, they’ve worked to be the author of their own story.
Coach Mike Schmitt’s team has done just that with 24 wins in its last 25 games and finally a long awaited berth in the 5A state championship. The second-seeded Raptors (13-0) square off with fourth-seeded Pomona (11-2) at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos.
“At that moment, our boys made the decision that no one, not one person was ever going to change our fate, but us,” Schmitt said Nov. 28 at a pre-championship game press conference at the stadium.
“We changed the way we do things at Eaglecrest,” he added. “I can tell you something, this is not an opportunity we look lightly upon. It’s an opportunity we’ve worked for since that day.”
Case in point for that control philosophy was the Nov. 25 semifinal game at Legacy Stadium that got Eaglecrest into the 5A state final for the first time since the program’s title-winning 1993 season.
Columbine put up seven points on the first series of double overtime to put the ball in the Raptors’ court to try to tie or go for the win.
After senior quarterback Jalen Mergerson cooly threw a touchdown pass to senior Theryne Sandoval-Jimenez on the first play of Eaglecrest’s possession to make it a one-point game, Schmitt went with his long-standing belief and put the fate of the game in his offense’s hands for a two-point conversion.
Mergerson hit Sandoval-Jimenez just across the goal line to deliver a thrilling 32-31 win.
“It was our mentality (to go for it),” Schmitt said. “I took the headset off and we were either going to win it or lose it, that’s been the mentality of these seniors.”
That senior class had a lot to do with the semifinal victory, as Mergerson threw two touchdown passes to Sandoval-Jimenez and rushed for a score in the first overtime, running back Kenny Wantings rushed for a score and Victor Garnes and Kyante Christian combined to force a safety to help the Raptors gain the momentum early.
Eaglecrest took control of the situation and avoided the type of frustrating end that came the previous season with a quarterfinal loss at the hands of Regis Jesuit.
Now, the stress of trying to win to get to the next game is gone and the Raptors can focus on completing the dream many of them have held since they arrived at the school.
“Our coach made a great point yesterday, all the pressure is gone,” Mergerson said. “There’s no pressure to win so we play again next week, now it’s here. It’s the ultimate goal and what we worked for and play for. Now it’s time to have fun and enjoy it and play with the guys you’ve played with for so long.”
Along with their opponent, Pomona, and 4A finalists Pine Creek and Pueblo South, the Raptors got a look at the place they will be playing for a state title Nov. 28.
About a dozen Eaglecrest players and a handful of coaches got to walk out and see the field and visit the lockerrooms.
“It’s so crazy to think that we’re going to play here, as high school students in a pro stadium,” senior linebacker Kyle Wagner said. “I never thought as a freshman that I would be able to do something of this magnitude.
“Lose or win, we’ll never be here again. It will be great to be here with my fellow seniors. I’ve gotten close to all of them this year and I’m proud to call them my brothers.”
The venue certainly impressed Eaglecrest, but so did its opponent, Pomona. The Panthers ran past the Raptors’ rival, Grandview, 42-20 in the other Nov. 25 5A semifinal.
For Pomona, playing at Mile High Stadium has become old hat as it wil be the program’s third straight trip to play at the field. Valor Christian — which was ousted by Grandview in the quarterfinals — beat the Panthers in each of the past two champoinship games.
Eaglecrest senior linebacker Cody Bardin doesn’t believe Pomona’s previous experience will be in the difference in the end result.
“To us, the game is the same; it’s not a different game of football,” Bardin said. “The field is still 100 yards and we’ll game plan like we do every week. We work on perfect preparation every week and that’s not going to change.”
Preparing to face a Pomona offense that has scored almost 100 points more than any other team in 5A this season is a daunting task.
The Panthers have the state’s most complete running back in senior Max Borghi, a seasoned senior quarterback in Ryan Marquez who will play in his 42nd game in four seasons and a wide receiver with more than 1,400 yards on the season in junior Billy Pospisil.
On top of that, the Panthers have a big offensive line and other speedy weapons such as juniors David Ross and Colton Muller, who each had touchdowns of 70-plus yards against Grandview.
“It’s crazy watching game film of them, they are a very explosive offense,” Wagner said. “It’s up to me and Cody on the inside to lead the front seven and try to shut the run game down. I trust my secondary to shut down the passing game.”
Just as it was when it did an admirable job of slowing Columbine’s extremely physical attack, discipline will be extremely important for the Eaglecrest defense.
“Pomona does a lot of things great and as soon as you don’t do your job, it’s a big play,” Christian said. “You trust that the guy next to you is going to do what he needs to do. It’s going to be a great game regardless because they are that good across the board.”
On the other side, Pomona coach Jay Madden said he woke up early in the morning worrying about Eaglecrest’s diverse offense.
Wantings has run the ball extremely well all season behind a big offensive line, Mergerson is a significant dual threat and Sandoval-Jimenez and Garnes (who played sparingly on offense against Columbine after he suffered a shoulder injury) are dangerous threats as well.
“They are a really good defense, so we’ll have to go out and execute like we do,” Eaglecrest senior center Mac Shaw said.
Garnes won a state championship with the Eaglecrest boys basketball team last winter, but a football ring would mean more to him.
“Football has always been my main sport,” he said. “It was nice to win one in basketball, but to be out here playing the state game in a game I truly love and playing with my friends, there’s nothing that can get better than this moment.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel