Junior running back Nate Gaye Jr. (21) picked up more than 200 yards in Cherokee Trail’s regular season finale and will try to give the Cougars a ground threat in their Class 5A state playoff game Thursday at Valor Christian. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

AURORA | Christian McCaffrey won’t be around this time, but the Cherokee Trail football team will have another running back to be concerned with Thursday when they face Valor Christian in the Class 5A state playoffs.

The Cougars and Eagles meet for the fourth time all-time in postseason play — kickoff scheduled for 6 p.m. at Valor Christian — and in two of the three previous meetings (all Eagles wins), the NFL star running back was in the backfield.

Cherokee Trail fell to McCaffrey and Valor Christian in the 2012 5A state championship game (9-0) and also in the semifinals the next year (42-23), as well as in the first round of the 2016 state playoffs.

This time when they face the 5-0 Eagles, coach Joe Johnson’s Cougars (4-2) have Gavin Sawchuk to contend with. In just five games, the junior speedster has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards — averaging 10.7 yards per carry on 93 attempts for 993 yards — to go with 16 touchdowns. Those numbers lead 5A in both categories.

Cherokee Trail’s defense gave up 111 points in its first two games (to No. 1 Cherry Creek and fifth-seeded Eaglecrest), but allowed just 14.5 points per game on its four-game winning streak to end the regular season and posted its first shutout in its finale against Overland.

The Cougars’ offense has been a steady producer — save for a scoreless effort against Cherry Creek’s outstanding defense — as senior quarterback Jayden Lavigne has made use of multiple weapons, most notably junior Jack Pierce. Junior Nate Gaye Jr. went over 200 yards and scored two touchdowns in his last game.

The winner moves into the 5A semifinals, where they will face the winner of the 2:30 p.m. Saturday contest between No. 6 Fairview and No. 3 Legend.

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