Junior linebacker Gabe Johnson (30) celebrates after making a big stop on fourth down for the Cherokee Trail defense during the Cougars’ 35-21 Centennial League football win over Smoky Hill on Oct. 23, 2020, at Stutler Bowl. Cherokee Trail’s defense put in its best effort of the season in the game that marked the midway point of the coronavirus-shortened season. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

A few weeks ago, a fall prep football season in Colorado didn’t seem plausible.

Now, it is halfway done.

The remainder of the six-game regular season (plus limited postseason) is still at the mercy of the coronavirus — which has progressed in the state lately — but half of it is in the books. It has been quite strange, memorable and unique for many, especially those that have been around for awhile.

“I’m off the edge of the map here for sure, just sailing blind,” Cherokee Trail veteran coach Joe Johnson said Oct. 23 after his team picked up its first win of the season with a 35-21 victory against Smoky Hill at Stutler Bowl.

“I’m glad we’re here and I love to give the opportunity to the kids,” he added. “I love being out here with them, I truly do. We just have to have a little bit different mindset than I’m used to. The kids are adjusting a lot better than I am, but we just have to keep doing it.”

All the late movement that helped make the season possible left a very short window of time to prepare for the season.

While it hasn’t seemed to affect teams like defending Class 5A state champion Cherry Creek — which is off to a 3-0 start — it has definitely had an impact on some.

Johnson, now in his 26th season coaching prep football in Colorado, traditionally takes pride in his defense, but up until the performance against the Buffaloes, it had been a rough go for the Cougars on that side of the football.

Cherokee Trail surrendered a total of 111 points in a 62-50 loss to Eaglecrest and 49-7 defeat to Cherry Creek, an average of 55.5 points per game (now down to 44 after its showing against Smoky Hill). The unit gave up just 19.7 points per game a season ago.

Some of the difference is graduation — including the loss of Centennial League Defensive Player of the Year Julian Williams — but some can also be attributed to the shortened timetable to prepare for the season and for the COVID-19 protocols that limit close contact.

“We’re not doing things the way we normally do it and I think that has affected our defense,” Johnson said. “Kids need to work on the physical part of the game to get ready. I don’t think we’ve done that, but I do think we’re getting better.

“We have to balance taking care of guys and doing the physical part of what you need to do defensively. It’s a hard balance and obviously I didn’t achieve that balance early. We just keep experimenting and doing the best we can.”

Junior Jack Love — whose interception return for a score helped in the win over Smoky Hill — can see the signs of a turnaround for his team, he just wishes there was more time.

“I wish we could have a full season, but it is what it is,” he said.

Eaglecrest also feels it has yet to reach its potential, despite sitting at 3-0 after a 55-13 win against Overland Oct. 23.

The Raptors have been downright explosive — boasting 5A’s highest number of points scored (160) through the first three weeks — but also have been plagued by special teams errors, ill-timed penalties and turnovers. It’s been enough to put them in a hole at halftime in two of three games.

Coach Shawn Marsh has enough exceptional athletes on his team — headed by Division I commitments Seyi Oladipo (Boise State), Ty Robinson (Colorado) and Langston Williams (Colorado State) — an offensive line bolstered by juniors Braden Miller and Kaden Weatherby and a thriving senior running back in JP Luketu (tied for tops in 5A with nine touchdowns) to overcome the miscues so far.

“We put ourselves in bad situations, but luckily we have great athletes and kids that have great heart and we are able to pull ourselves out of those bad situations,” Marsh said. “We’re our own worst enemy. If we can clean things up, we can be a good football team.”

Regis Jesuit is 2-1 after a 31-7 loss to Legend Oct. 23, which put the Raiders a game off the pace in the South League at the midway point. It was the first loss to a league opponent for Regis Jesuit since 2015 as it went undefeated in the Mount Antero League in 2016 and 2017 and in the South League the last two seasons.

Two of the last three opponents for coach Danny Filleman’s Raiders — Douglas County and Pine Creek — have played just one game this season thus far due to coronavirus quarantines.

With back-to-back losses to rivals Eaglecrest and Cherry Creek, Grandview is off to an unusual 1-2 start, which hasn’t happened for coach John Schultz’s program since 2012.

The Wolves recovered that season to finish 7-3 and qualify for the 5A playoffs, but in this season’s condensed format, likely need to win their final three games for a chance to extend their streak of postseason appearances to 16 straight years.

Smoky Hill finished the last two regular seasons with perfect 10-0 marks, but have so far suffered two regular season losses (to Cherry Creek and Cherokee Trail). Coach Tom Thenell’s program still operates with the confidence borne from the past two seasons of success, however, and boast a veteran quarterback in senior Leslie Richardson III, who gives the Buffaloes a chance to win every time they play.

Grandview and Smoky Hill square off in Week 4 with the winner evening its record with two games remaining.

Overland remains looking for its first victory under new head coach Kyle Reese, but it will be a difficult task with undefeated Cherry Creek — Reese’s old team — looming in Week 4. The Trailblazers dropped a three-point non-league contest to Legacy in Week 1 and found tough going in Centennial League play vs. Arapahoe and Eaglecrest.

Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports

AURORA’S WEEK 3 FALL FOOTBALL

Recap: Cherokee Trail holds off Smoky Hill for first win of season

Recap: Explosive first half vs. Overland gets Eaglecrest to 3-0

Recap: Legend knocks Regis Jesuit from unbeaten ranks

Recap: In the elements, Cherry Creek deals Grandview very rare shutout

Photo gallery: Cherokee Trail vs. Smoky Hill

Photo gallery: Eaglecrest vs. Overland

Photo gallery: Regis Jesuit vs. Legend

Scoreboard: Aurora’s Week 3 football scoreboard