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MEEKER | Neither team in the 2016 1A Colorado Football State Championship game between the Meeker Cowboys and the Strasburg Indians has lost a game so far this season, but only one team will leave Starbuck Stadium undefeated with the championship trophy for their school’s trophy case.
“We have a group of hard-nosed kids, who we knew would fight to the end and they did,” Meeker head football coach Shane Phelan said after his team came from behind to beat the Bennett Tigers 34-24, advancing to the state championship game, which Meeker will host in Starbuck Stadium this Saturday at 1 p.m.
“We told them if they win one more game they get to play one more game for the championship, right here on this field, in front of this crowd,” Phelan said, looking at all the fans celebrating after the game. “We are so thankful to the community for all the support they have given us. They brought in extra bleachers and I think they were full. We hope they bring in some more and fill them up too.”
For a seventh time in the history of the Meeker High School football program and the first time since 1996, the Cowboys will host and play in the championship game, where they will continue their quest to win the school’s first-ever Colorado state football title.
The No. 1 seeded and undefeated Meeker Cowboys (12-0) will host the No. 2 seeded and undefeated Strasburg Indians (12-0) Saturday in Starbuck Stadium, featuring a brand new field which the Cowboys have not lost on, surrounded by the new Bob King Track.
Meeker will be the fourth Northwest League team the Indians have played in the 2016 state playoffs. Strasburg beat Grand Valley in the first round, Cedaredge in the second and Paonia 48-21 in last week’s semifinal game, advancing them to the championship game for a third time in their history. Strasburg won team titles in 1989 and 1990.
Meeker lost in the semifinals two years ago and advanced this year with a first round win over Ellicott at Meeker, then Platte Canyon on the road and the Bennett Tigers in the semifinals, also in front a large hometown crowd. They had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to do it.
The Tigers scored first, after Meeker punted its first possession. Meeker forced a fourth and four, a running back broke away and ran for a 50-yard touchdown, added the two-point conversion and led 8-0 after less than three minutes were played.
Meeker needed less than three minutes to get on the board after quarterback Logan Hughes ran for a big gain, then connected with Doak Mantle for a 20-yard touchdown. Mantle was not able to get into the end zone for the two-point conversion and the Cowboys trailed 6-8 with 6:56 left to play in the first quarter.
Good defensive play by both teams kept the score the same at the end of the first quarter but Meeker would take their first lead of the game when Hughes connected with senior Casey Turner for a 50-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter. A completion to senior Hunter Garcia on the two-point conversion gave Meeker a 14-8 lead, 10 seconds into the second quarter. Bennett drove 75 yards for another touchdown to take a 16-14 lead and the only scoring that would count in the second quarter.
Meeker would score again, late in the third quarter after moving the ball down the field, mostly through the air, with big catches from Garcia and senior Cole Brown, moving the ball to the one-yard line, where Hughes ran it in, giving Meeker a 20-16 lead.
The Tigers went into a no-huddle offense and drove the ball down to the two-yard line, where they scored another touchdown, added the two point conversion with six-seconds left to play in the third period and took a 24-20 lead into the final 12 minutes.
Both teams punted their first possessions of the final quarter, then Meeker got the ball back with about nine minutes to play and moved the ball to the 20-yard line with a nice catch and run by Garcia.
Facing a fourth and 10, with 7:10 left to play, Hughes threw the ball high to Brown, who out-jumped his defender and landed in the end zone with the ball for Meeker’s go-ahead touchdown. Hughes ran in the extra point and Meeker led 28-24 with seven minutes to play.
Bennett started at their own 15 and went with the no-huddle again after big runs, moving the ball down to Meeker’s 30-yard line where they faced fourth and one, when Turner tackled their quarterback for a loss and gave his team the ball back with 4:24 left to play.
On the next play, Turner broke several tackles and the Tiger’s spirit, as he gained 40 yards, helping set up Mantle for another touchdown, giving their team a 10-point lead with 1:36 left to play.
Mantle put the game away with an interception with 42 seconds left on the clock.
“We had a lot of guys step up and make plays,” Coach Phelan said. “In the end, football is about blocking and tackling and we have a lot of guys that can play football.”
Hughes completed 17 of 32 for 326 yards and three touchdowns, to three different receivers, while five caught passes.
Brown led the receivers with seven catches, gaining 114 yards and one touchdown, while Garcia had one more yard than Brown on five catches. Mantle and Turner caught touchdown passes and senior Sheridan Harvey caught three, including a spectacular diving catch early in the game.
Hughes gained 59 yards rushing the ball, Turner had 52 and Mantle had 13.
Senior Chase Rule led the Cowboys on defense with 17 tackles, Garcia and Mantle were in on 14 each, while Turner recorded 11 and senior Ty Gibson was in on nine. Harvey and Brown each finished with eight tackles.
Coach Phelan said Strasburg likes to “spread things out.”
“They are fast and have good athletes at the skilled positions,” coach Phelan said about the competitor for his first state championship as head coach. “We’re excited to play them on our field, in front of all of these fans.”