The non-league portion of the 2023 prep football season has been a mixed bag for Aurora teams, but certainty is ahead with the arrival of league play.
Not certainty in terms of results, but with postseason bids at stake, a sense of urgency can be felt in every snap.
Non-league play can indicate a lot about the prospects of a team, however nothing reveals the truth faster than conference opponents, especially those with long standing traditions like those in the rugged Centennial League.
Fast starts can come to screeching halts, slow beginnings can turn around, and virtually anything can and does happen once conference play begins and the countdown to the postseason starts.
With no disrespect intended to any of the programs that Eaglecrest defeated during a 5-0 non-league schedule, veteran head coach Mike Schmitt is anxious to see how his team — which has a significantly different look that it did last season — responds during the looming gauntlet.
“The excitement of getting into Legacy Stadium with full crowds and playing our rival schools is what we want, to see where we are,” said Schmitt, whose team is the only one in the area that has yet to taste defeat. “We were able to win our first five games against opponents that aren’t as good as what we’ll see, so this is our measuring stick.
“Are we as good as we think we are? There’s a lot of learning that will take place over the last five weeks.”
Even programs that have gotten off to slow starts and have a lot of issues to deal with such as injury-riddled Cherokee Trail can’t wait for the juice that comes with conference play.
“League play is a big deal deal for us,” said head coach Justin Jajczyk, who has been around the Centennial League for many years.“Life is full of opportunities and moments, and we have the opportunity to play the No. 1 team and four-time defending state champion (Cherry Creek) to start. I don’t know if moments get any bigger than that.”
RAPTORS FLYING HIGH, BUT PREPARE FOR POSSIBLE TURBULANCE
Eaglecrest started non-conference play 5-0 last season, but found the going much tougher with a 2-3 mark in Centennial League play.
The undefeated portion of the season — plus the boost in the postseason seeding formula provided by playing good teams every week in conference play — still got the Raptors into the Class 5A state playoffs, but Schmitt knows that fortunes can change quickly.
That’s especially true in a league headed by four-time defending 5A state champion Cherry Creek, perennial powerhouse Grandview and a loaded Arapahoe team among others.
The Raptors go into this league slate with inexperience in places and a quarterback in junior Joe Steiner who is in his first year as a starter. He has gotten off to a good start with 968 passing yards and 12 touchdowns (versus two interceptions) with help from a veteran receiving core, good line play and a developing run game.
“Any time you have a first year quarterback going into league, there’s going to be a quick learning curve,” Schmitt said. “Joe has some good people around him and I think he’s ready for the task and ready to play against some of the state’s best.”
That challenge will come right away when Eaglecrest goes against one of its massive rivals, Grandview, in a Friday Night Lights contest set for a 7 p.m. kickoff Sept. 29 at Legacy Stadium.
It is the type of atmosphere that every young football player in the area dreams about when they reach the high school level and both teams will fight to the very last second to come out on top.
Schmitt — who has one of the area’s elite game-changers in versatile senior Cam Chapa on his side — is eager to see how it all plays out.
“It’s always a battle, it’s always a good game when we play,” Schmitt said of Grandview.
“Sometimes one team will jump up on the other and the other one comes back. For me, again, it’s more about I just want to get a test of seeing where we are and can we deal with the pressure? It’s a rivalry game, and the kids all know each other, so I’m fine jumping in like that. I feel like it’s time.”
WOLVES READY FOR PHYSICAL CHALLENGE OF THE LEAGUE
Grandview finished the non-league slate with a 4-1 — with the only loss coming to a Ralston Valley team that made the 5A semifinals last season — and coach Tom Doherty has seen signs the Wolves are ready for the league.
He was encouraged after his team weathered a challenge from Fruita Monument — which he called the “Columbine of the Western Slope” due to its physical, run-heavy attack — in Week 3. The return to the field of senior linebacker Preston Emken, who suffered a knee injury in the playoffs last season, should help.
“If you can’t be physical in the Centennial League, you’re not going to win many games,” said Doherty, who knows the league well after stops at Eaglecrest and at Cherry Creek, where he was the longtime defensive coordinator for coach Dave Logan.
Mentally and physically, Grandview is built for Centennial League play and even dealt Cherry Creek a loss in the regular season finale a year ago.
The Wolves have their usual salty defense and a balanced offense led by senior quarterback Liam Szarka, who ranks fourth in 5A in passing yards (1,126) and third in touchdown passes (13, against one interception) through a handful of games.
Senior Nate Denton and juniors Xay Neto and Kyler Vaughn give Szarka plenty of weapons, while Grandview has the running back tandem of junior Donavon Vernon and sophomore Chris Blanks that should keep defenses honest.
“I think we’re all looking forward to it and excited to see how we compete in the league,” Vaughn said. “We feel like we can hold ourselves to that high standard.”
Grandview again closes with Cherry Creek, a matchup scheduled for Oct. 27.
COULD LEAGUE PLAY BE EASIER FOR REGIS JESUIT?
Regis Jesuit (2-3) has by all measures the most difficult schedule of any local team, especially considering that three of its five non-league opponents made the semifinals last season in Cherry Creek, Valor Christian and Ralston Valley.
The fourth semifinalist, Pine Creek (5-0), awaits in Southern League play, which by comparison should be easier for coach Danny Filleman’s Raiders to handle.
Regis Jesuit opened with a big win over parochial school rival Valor Christian — the team that ended its season last year — and moved to 2-0 with a close win over Kennedy Cathloic (a visitor who is 3-1 in play in Washington), before it lost close games to Arapahoe and Ralston Valley and finally dropped a 47-21 contest against Cherry Creek in Week 5.
The Raiders were within seven points of the Bruins at halftime — thanks to a Hail Mary reception by senior Anthony Medina on a heave from junior Peyton Lindell as time expired — but saw the powerhouse Bruins steady the ship in the second half and pull away.
Medina has been a dynamic force for Regis Jesuit with a combined 675 yards of total offense and 11 touchdowns (six rushing, five receiving), while junior JoJo Hernandez and senior Jaden Thermidor have been other weapons for the Raiders, who have so far averaged 27.2 points per game, but have allowed 32.6.
Last season, Regis Jesuit finished 4-1 in conference place with its loss coming to Fountain-Fort Carson in the final week. The Raiders and the Trojans (5-0) will again close the regular season with an Oct. 27 tilt.
Regis Jesuit also holds the distinction as the lone team to not play a true home game, as renovations on Lou Kellogg Stadium have not been completed.
COUGARS HOBBLED, BUT CAN’T WAIT
Cherokee Trail coach Justin Jajczyk knows how incredibly difficult the Centennial League can be for even the teams in the best of health.
His Cougars do not qualify in that category.
When Cherokee Trail (2-3) begins its league slate against undefeated powerhouse Cherry Creek Sept. 28 at Stutler Bowl, it will have only two of the players on defense that started its Week 1 game against Chatfield.
Among the losses before year was starting running back Noah Collins, while speedy junior receiver Peyton Sommers suffered a broken collarbone in Week 1. A variety of other injuries have befallen other key players, straining depth and causing the coaching staff to make all sorts of adjustments to their game plans.
“We’re down 24 players because of injury, so obviously we’re not where we want to be at this point, but we still have an opportunity ahead of us,” Jajczyk said. “There is never a down week in our league with all these rivalries and histories and throw in some other stuff like Homecomings. It makes it interesting every week.”
Cherokee Trail finished 1-4 in Centennial League play last year, but won a battle with Smoky Hill in the finale to qualify for the 5A playoffs.
TEAMS LOOKING TO GET ON A ROLL
It has been a difficult non-league portion of the season for several Aurora programs, but turning the page to league play offers them some hope of getting on track.
Overland has the same 2-3 record it had as last season in non-league play (with wins over the same teams as well) and is optimistic as it finished 3-2 in 5A Metro North play a season ago. Coach Kyle Reese’s team concluded non-league play with a 21-13 Homecoming win over Grand Junction that he hopes will spark the program. Hard-nosed junior running back Jarrius Ward and versatile senior Talil Seals-Fisher have been effective weapons in the early going for Overland.
Vista PEAK Prep has already matched its win total from last season of two and coach DaVaughn Thornton Sr.’s Bison (2-3), would very much like to be better in 4A Southeast Metro League competition after going 0-4 last season. Vista PEAK Prep has gotten an explosive start to the season from senior Marcel Evans Jr., who had a three-touchdown game in a win over Skyline and returned kickoffs for scores against Rangeview and Vista Ridge.
Rangeview has had a more difficult start than last season at 1-4 in non-league play — after coach Chris Dixon’s group went 3-2 in 2022 in its first five — while they had a 2-3 mark in 5A Front Range South competition. None of the other four teams in the conference have better than a 3-2 record — held by both Prairie View and Brighton — going into Week 6. Senior Jah Alexander and junior William Gregory have combined for nearly 1,000 yards rushing and nine touchdowns in the first half of the season.
Smoky Hill is also 1-4 after non-league play — a victory against rival Overland that brought back the Wagon Wheel traveling trophy — but has a brutal task ahead in the Centennial League. Coach Brandon Alconcel’s Buffaloes will have to find a way to get an offense going that scored just two touchdowns in their first five games if they want to avoid going 0-5 against loaded conference opponents as in 2022.
Aurora Central likewise carries a 1-4 non-league mark into 4A Metro 2 League competition, which is top-heavy with teams such as defending 4A state champion Broomfield, Fruita Monument and Heritage in the mix. The Trojans finished 0-4 in league play a year ago and seek to improve on that as they try to find ways to get the ball to explosive senior Christopher Perkins, who has 867 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns to his credit through the first half of the season.
Gateway lost two games during an 0-4 start to the season, but opened its expanded league play with a 40-6 I25 League victory over Thornton in Week 5. It marked the first win as head coach for Rashad Mason, who guides the Olys through the rest of conference play with hopes of more victories. Senior Knyle Serrell has 622 total yards and six touchdowns to his credit, while basketball player Maximus Matthews has been a quality addition.
Hinkley has already scored more points in five games (28) as it did in 10 games last season (26) and is hungry to earn its first victory of the season. Coach Dennis York’s team — which is 0-2 in I25 play — saw a Week 2 contest with Aurora Central slip away in the second half, but only one of the Thunder’s five remaining opponents has more than one win.
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at email@example.com. Twitter/X: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports