Thanksgiving football practices have become thing of regularity around Aurora in the past decade, but 2019 is different.
Cherished holiday preparation for Class 5A state semifinals is on hiatus for only the second time in the past decade after losses by Regis Jesuit and Eaglecrest in the quarterfinals.
Since 2010, Aurora programs (Eaglecrest, Regis Jesuit and Cherokee Trail) have made three trips to the state championship game and one city team has appeared in the semifinals every time save 2015. This year, that honor goes to No. 1 Cherry Creek, No. 2 Ralston Valley, No. 5 Pomona and No. 6 Columbine.
Three Aurora teams carried undefeated records into the postseason — Regis Jesuit, Smoky Hill and Vista PEAK (4A) — and the last unbeaten run ended with the fourth-seeded Raiders’ 28-14 loss to No. 5 Pomona Nov. 23.
In a game delayed a day because of snow, Regis Jesuit found a stiff test in the Panthers at sun-splashed Lou Kellogg Stadium.
Pomona launched three scoring drives of 79 yards or more, mixed in a quick strike in the last minute before halftime and forced three turnovers to deal penalty-plagued Regis Jesuit only its second loss in its past 19 games.
A seemingly unstoppable, straight ahead run game led by 6-foot-2, 225-pound battering ram Sanjay Strickland — a linebacker used at running back —proved ultimately too much for coach Danny Filleman’s young Raiders to overcome.
Filleman loses just 10 seniors and next season expects to return plenty of core players — such as highly-regarded sophomore quarterback Nicco Marchiol, who threw for 193 yards, including 94 to sophomore Dallas Macias — who will have the unwanted experience of the loss to Pomona to draw from.
“As young as we are, you really hope that they will use it as fuel for the offseason,” Filleman said. “They are going to hear from us and that’s going to be our motivation the whole time, this game right here. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but everyone who plays sports goes through it.”
Senior wide receiver Jackson Connelly, who caught one of Marchiol’s two touchdown passes (the other went to fellow senior Bryce Sloan) sees a bright future for the Raiders.
“I see them coming right back at it next year and going all the way to win state,” Connelly said. “You have to lose sometimes to learn how to win in the playoffs. I have all the confidence in the coaches and players to get it done.”
Eaglecrest played in the quarterfinals for a fourth straight season (which included its championship game appearance in 2017) under a third head coach — this time Shawn Marsh — and ran into a buzzsaw in undefeated and second-seeded Ralston Valley.
A fumble returned for a touchdown by the Mustangs broke an early stalemate late in the first quarter and was just the first of many things to go wrong for the Raptors in a 42-14 loss Nov. 22 on the frozen tundra at Golden’s North Area Athletic Complex.
Ralston Valley also scored via interception return with less than a second to go in a 35-point first half that spelled the end for Eaglecrest’s season at 9-4. Senior quarterback Max Marsh and senior running back David Creal scored the touchdowns for the Raptors.
“It’s never easy to hang it up on a season,” said Shawn Marsh, who coached his fourth and final season with Max as his quarterback after the duo came over from Grand Junction Central prior to the season.
University of Michigan-bound lineman Reece Atteberry played on every one of Eaglecrest’s last four quarterfinal teams and sees more in the future.
“I was blessed because I never got knocked out before the quarterfinals,” Atteberry said. “It’s an expectation here. Coach Marsh has things going the right way and it’s going to carry on.”
Eaglecrest knocked out Aurora’s most consistent semifinal qualifier — Grandview (8-3) — in the previous round, while Cherokee Trail (8-4) and Smoky Hill (11-1) exited the postseason in the second round and Overland (3-8) and Vista PEAK (10-1) lost in the first round.