The Eaglecrest football team’s undefeated run came to a frustrating end Nov. 18.
The Raptors completed a perfect 10-0 regular season, rolled past Chaparral in the opening round of the Class 5A state playoffs and built a two-score lead in the first half of a quarterfinal matchup at Regis Jesuit.
The moment wasn’t too large for coach Mike Schmitt’s fifth-seeded team — which was in the 5A quarterfinals for the first time since 2012 — but No. 4 Regis Jesuit made the big plays in the clutch to deal the Raptors a season-ending 34-24 defeat.
“I thought it was an evenly-matched game and if we played each other 10 times, we’d probably beat them five times and they’d beat us five times,” Schmitt said.
“In retrospect, you have to look at it like we were 4-6 last season and we had a bunch of kids out there that didn’t have that experience…We’re taking it hard, but I felt like we belonged. It was a great experience for the juniors and younger players that will be coming back.”
Indeed, Eaglecrest went into a difficult place to play — which Schmitt admitted took his players and coaches “out of their comfort zone” — and stood toe-to-toe with Regis Jesuit, which had moved into the second round of the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
The Raiders pooched the opening kickoff, recovered it and tallied an early field goal, but the Raptors weren’t fazed.
Junior quarterback Jalen Mergerson finding junior Theryne Sandoval-Jimenez twice with touchdown passes and junior Victor Garnes returning an interception 65 yards for a touchdown, but some things ended up costing them in the long run.
First, Regis Jesuit pooched the opening kickoff and recovered the ball in Eaglecrest territory, which gave them a 3-0 lead off the bat. Then, the Raiders scored twice in the final 4 minutes of the half on drives of 71 and 69 yards to take a 24-21 lead into halftime.
It was the first time all season that the Raptors had trailed at halftime and one of a very few times during the entire season they had faced a deficit.
The Eaglecrest defense forced a three-and-out to open the second half, then knotted the score at 24-24 on Sandoval-Jimenez’s 20-yard field goal with 4:14 left in the third quarter.
“No matter how much you lift weights or how hard you practice, you don’t know how you’ll responded until you’re in the fire,” Schmitt said. “One of our key players, our fullback, got hurt and we still were able to get a field goal to tie it, so I’m proud of them.”
In a tie game, Eaglecrest got the ball back again and began to work on the go-ahead drive, as junior Kenny Wantings got them near midfield with an 11-yard run.
Mergerson took a deep drop and looked for Wantings in the flat on the next play, but Regis Jesuit junior defensive end Jake Heimlicher made a huge play when he swatted down Mergerson’s pass with his left hand to keep it behind the line of scrimmage, then scooped up the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown.
The Raptors fought until the last series, but couldn’t come back.
Schmitt was grateful for the impact his team made on the school pride at Eaglecrest this season and is encouraged by the large number of returning players he has for 2017. It’s a hard-working group with a lot of ability and leadership.
Garnes has shown the ability to effect the game on offense, defense and special teams, while Mergerson continues to flourish with his command of the offense, while key skill players in Sandoval-Jimenez, Wantings and Corey Corbin and a young offense line keyed by Bear Miller and Reece Atteberry expect to return.
An outstanding defensive unit should get back Kyante Christian on the defensive line, plus linebackers Cory Bardin and Tyler Dufour, cornerback Jon Heupal and others.
“We wanted to make an impact every day and I think they accomplished that,” Schmitt said. “Obviously you want to win, but to go from 4-6 to playing in the quarterfinals is huge and to win a state championship after going 4-6 doesn’t happen very often.
“We definitely know where we have to go and can work towards that.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel