On the surface, the 2019 state football playoffs look like more of the same from Colorado’s usual suspects.
Valor Christian, Cherry Creek, Columbine and locally, Grandview, are expected to contend as usual.
But in Aurora, there is a refreshing newness to the postseason.
• Seven programs — Cherokee Trail, Eaglecrest, Grandview, Overland, Regis Jesuit and Smoky Hill in Class 5A (which expanded its field this season), plus Vista PEAK in 4A — qualified for the postseason, the largest number since 2014.
• Vista PEAK finished off its first undefeated regular season, secured its first league championship and will play its inaugural postseason contest at home.
• While Smoky Hill’s playoff victory (a 48-6 defeat of Overland Nov. 8 at Stutler Bowl) wasn’t it’s first ever, it sure felt that way. The Buffaloes hadn’t tasted a playoff victory since 1991.
• Eaglecrest picked up its first postseason victory under new head coach Shawn Marsh (a 34-31 victory over Legacy Nov. 8), who became the third coach in the past three seasons to win in the postseason, following Garrett Looney last year and Mike Schmitt in 2017.
• Regis Jesuit sat out with a first round bye after completing the program’s first undefeated regular season in nearly a decade. The last time the Raiders went 10-0 in the regular season — 2010 — they made it all the way to the state championship game.
The most striking newness is clearly at Vista PEAK, which had seen the previous best seasons of its short varsity existence end short of the playoffs with costly late losses.
Coach John Sullivan’s team, which came into the season with palpable swagger, finished the regular season in the right way this time. With a perfect record and the Pioneer League title on the line, the Bison trekked to the Westen Slope and handled Fruita Monument 35-21 Nov. 8.
Vista PEAK earned the No. 3 seed in the 4A playoffs and earned the first home playoff game held at Aurora Public Schools Stadium since Rangeview in 2014. The Bison play host to No. 14 Heritage at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 15.
“I’m sure a lot of people in this state are surprised, but I’m not surprised with where we are right now,” Sullivan said. “Honestly, I would be disappointed if we weren’t right here.”
The Bison have arrived in the postseason thanks to the combination of the maturity of a slew of young players that got pressed into duty last season, growing comfort with the new offense and defense implemented last season, the diligence of a staff made up of double-digit coaches with playing or coaching experience in Aurora and the sheer physical gifts of a number of their star players.
Junior Ja’derris Carr-Kersh has been on another level all season and scored four touchdowns — three rushing, one receiving — in Vista PEAK’s win over Fruita Monument and is just shy of leading the state in scores.
The three-headed running back combination of Carr-Kersh and physical junior Montral Hamrick and Gene Sledge Jr. running behind a determined line and complemented by the passing game of junior Victor Owens has made the Bison a load to deal with.
A first round win would put Vista PEAK into the final eight with a matchup against one of two teams it already defeated during the regular season, No. 6 Dakota Ridge or Fruita Monument, the No. 11 seed which would host the Bison for the second time in three weeks with a first round victory.
Smoky Hill felt it deserved a home playoff game in the wake of a second straight undefeated season and coach Tom Thenell’s Buffaloes were rewarded this time as the No. 11 seed.
The last two forays into the postseason hadn’t gone well for Smoky Hill, which lost by 21 points to Rocky Mountain in 2007 and by 34 to Regis Jesuit last season.
This time, it was the Buffaloes who were the aggressors in a commanding 48-6 win against Overland, which made its return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Senior running back Obie Sanni had his second five-touchdown game of the season against the Trailblazers, while junior quarterback Leslie Richardson III tossed touchdown passes to senior Ryan Hollingsworth — who made a spectacular one-handed grab in the end zone — and junior DeAngelo Horn.
In the second round, Smoky Hill (11-0) draws one of the Colorado program’s that is most used to winning in the regular season and the playoffs in Columbine (8-2), the No. 6 seed. The Buffs and Rebels face off at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at Jeffco Stadium.
In the closest of any of the eight 5A first round contests, Marsh led Eaglecrest to a 34-31 victory over Legacy Nov. 8 at Legacy Stadium.
Facing an opponent they’d beaten by just three points during the regular season, the Raptors allowed back-to-back touchdowns in the third quarter, then responded with an 80-yard drive engineered by quarterback Max Marsh and capped by David Creal’s short touchdown run.
Langston Williams picked off his second pass of the game late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory, which now pits Eaglecrest against rival Grandview in a second round game scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at Legacy Stadium.
Coach John Schultz’s Wolves — Aurora’s longest-standing staple of postseason play with at least one win in the playoffs in 14 consecutive seasons and three semifinal trips in the last five campaigns — won 14-11 when the teams met in the regular season and took last season’s quarterfinal matchup in frigid conditions.
Cherokee Trail won its first playoff game under coach Joe Johnson last season and got him another with a thorough 35-17 win over Fountain-Fort Carson Nov. 15.
Senior Julian Williams rushed for four touchdowns to move the Cougars into a second round road matchup at Recht Field in Boulder against record-setting quarterback Aidan Atkinson and No. 8 Fairview at 7 p.m. Nov. 15.
Like Smoky Hill, Regis Jesuit completed an undefeated regular season, but unlike the Buffaloes, coach Danny Filleman’s Raiders got a first round bye as the No. 4 seed.
Led by dual-threat sophomore quarterback Nicco Marchiol, emerging junior running back David Dody and a strong defense, Regis Jesuit is set up to make a deep run in the postseason. Filleman’s deepest progress in the playoffs since he took over the program in 2015 came in 2016 when the Raiders made the semifinals.
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports
2019 AURORA PREP FOOTBALL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
THURSDAY, NOV. 14
Class 5A state playoffs (2nd round)
Smoky Hill vs. Columbine at Jeffco Stadium, 7 p.m.
FRIDAY, NOV. 15
Class 4A state playoffs (1st round)
Heritage vs. Vista PEAK at Aurora Public Schools Stadium, 6:30 p.m.
Class 5A state playoffs (2nd round)
Cherokee Trail vs. Fairview at Recht Field, 7 p.m.
Eaglecrest vs. Grandview at Legacy Stadium, 7 p.m.
Highlands Ranch at Regis Jesuit, 7 p.m.