Senior Zack Whitworth, front, and his Vista PEAK teammates dig in during the tug-o-war competition at the 2019 Hog Wars event for Aurora prep football linemen on July 10, 2019, at Rangeview High School. The Bison won a tug-o-war tiebreaker over Cherokee Trail to win Hog Wars for the first time. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

The last time John Sullivan watched his Vista PEAK football team play a real game, it got pushed around a bit physically.

That 32-3 loss to an older and bigger Fruita Monument team in the 2018 finale has been a motivator for the program’s returning players and coaches, especially in the weight room.

On July 10, it was the newly-beefy Bison that did the pushing — or in some cases pulling — on their way to the Hog Wars championship. Sullivan’s group won a head-to-head tug-o-war with Cherokee Trail to win their first title in the annual strength and teamwork competition for Aurora linemen.

“This is one of the most competitive groups of kids I’ve been around in my 20 years of coaching,” Sullivan said. “It shows in that they lost in an early match, then came back and beat the champions in the tug-o-war. They don’t like to lose.

“We’ve had a great offseason to this point with our camp and everything that happened today is icing on the cake. Hopefully we can use it as a springboard for the season.”

Under the watchful eye of coaches Shane Ward, Joe Ryan, Sullivan and others, the team of seniors Zack Whitworth, Jaylen Walker and Gene Sledge and juniors Montral Hamrick, Braylen Nelson and Donovan Jarmon, did the primary heavy lifting for Vista PEAK, which also had support from juniors Justin Leadens and Justin Acosta.

Sledge, a bruising 225-pound running back who usually picks up yards running behind the linemen, dug in and helped out as Vista PEAK won two events (the monster tire truck flip relay and firetruck push) and prevailed at the end.

“It’s really important to win this, especially to the main core of our team,” Sledge said. “We work hard every day and even though we may not have the biggest kids, we have the most heart. Against anybody we play, we’re not going to quit. You’re going to have to come play us for four quarters.”

The Bison were up to the challenge in the “fourth quarter” of Hog Wars when they staved off a late bid by Cherokee Trail — which won the tug-o-war event to forge a tie — and Rangeview, which was in search of its 12th title in 15 years.

With a rousing head-to-head tiebreaking win over the Cougars, Vista PEAK ended a long day on a high note.

“We don’t care who we are up against, we are the most competitive dudes out there and we’re going to give it our all against anybody,” Whitworth said. “It was definitely exhausting, but it was rewarding taking it all. We’ve always wanted to see a trophy from Hog Wars come to Vista PEAK and now it will.”

The Bison join a small group that have able to unseat the Raiders since they originated the event in 2005, joining Cherokee Trail (2013), Overland (2012) and Gateway (2011).

The Cougars — who won three of the six events despite bringing just six competitors — had their own motivation to win.

“Our motivation was the last time CT won this, it went to the state final,” senior Austin Jandik said. “We wanted to follow that pattern, but I think we’ll have a good year anyways. If we can perform this week right now, we’ll take this with a grain of salt, work on stuff and come back and compete harder.”

Meanwhile, Rangeview — which finished third — had to cede the trophy for the first time in five years and only the fifth time overall.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve not been able to look at that trophy every day,” Raiders coach Brandon Alconcel said. “It’s good to see another team win so we have something to strive for. Yeah, we’re usually on top, but it’s not the season. We had times when we didn’t win it and had good seasons. so maybe it motivates the team.”

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