The motto of the Erie High School football team this season has been “Don’t ring the bell.”
The Tigers easily could have given up in the closing minutes of their quarterfinal matchup against the Durango Demons in the Colorado High School Activities Association Class 3A Playoffs, but they refused to ring the bell.
Trailing 28-27 with 1 minute, 31 seconds remaining, Erie converted on fourth-and-14 with a 16-yard pass from Dion Lucero to Mathis Alexander. A couple Noah Roper runs later the No. 5 Tigers were in the end zone to break the hearts of the No. 13 Demons with a 35-28 victory Saturday afternoon at DHS.
“The quote we’ve been going over and over is never, ever ring the bell. I told myself the last drive, and I was tired as hell, but I told myself, ‘You’re not ringing the bell. You’re not gonna give up and ring the bell,’” Roper said. “We all had that mindset and came out and did what we needed to do to win the game.”
It was the second week in a row the Tigers scored a late TD to keep their season alive. Last week, Erie knocked off Pueblo East 22-21.
Unofficially, Roper fan for 210 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Tigers to victory.
“He’s the No. 1 running back in the state for a reason, and the key was to shut him down,” Durango head coach David Vogt said of Roper. “The kid is amazing. He’s a great, great running back and we couldn’t shut him down when we needed to.”
The Demons (8-4) didn’t waste any time finding the end zone in the first quarter. After receiving the opening kick, Durango capped a six-play, 80-yard drive when freshman quarterback Jordan Woolverton connected on a short pass up the middle to senior receiver Gavin Mestas, who went 60 yards untouched for a touchdown.
Erie (10-2) tied the game at 7-7 late in the second quarter. After getting pinned inside their own 20 after a Durango punt, the Tigers scored on a five-yard run by Roper. Roper set up the TD with a 45-yard run to get the Tigers into Durango territory earlier in the drive.
Erie, a town 15 miles from Boulder and in Weld County, took the lead in the second quarter when Roper ran in from five yards again. Roper was a part of every play of the Tigers’ five-play, 77-yard drive. He ran for 22 yards and completed the only pass of the drive for a 55-yard gain on a halfback pass to Alexander.
“Everyone knows what we’re gonna do most the time and that’s give the ball to Noah. He’s a pretty good player so you have to give him the ball,” Erie head coach Chad Cooper said.
The Tigers added to their lead later in the quarter. The Durango defense bit hard on play action and Lucero floated a pass to a wide open Alexander for a 44-yard touchdown that made it 20-7.
“Dion played pretty well,” Cooper said. “We did a good job using the run game to set up the pass and he made a couple long throws in the first half he did a great job on. He’s getting better and better.”
The two-score deficit was a blow to the Demons, but Mestas said they never stumbled mentally after falling behind.
“Ups and downs, that’s football,” he said. “We knew there were going to be some ups and downs and we just had to overcome them.”
The Demons did just that.
Durango made it a one-score game in the closing minute of the second quarter when Woolverton found Alex Hise for a 6-yard touchdown that capped a 10-play, 80-yard drive to make it a 20-14 game with 41 seconds left before halftime.
The Demons went with a squib kick on the ensuing kickoff to keep the ball out of Roper’s hands, and the Tigers started their drive on their own 47-yard line.
With time winding down, Erie tried a hook-and-ladder play. The pass and lateral on the play were successful, but the Tigers fumbled after the lateral at the 15-yard line. Hise scooped up the ball on the first bounce and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown with no time left on the clock.
The Durango sideline was given a 15-yard penalty for celebrating the TD, but kicker Caleb McGrath, filling in for regular starter Harrison Kairalla, who is out of the country on a family vacation, nailed the 35-yard extra point kick to give the Demons a 21-20 halftime lead.
Erie came out for the third quarter and put together a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a Roper 1-yard TD run. All of the Tigers yards came on the ground and Roper accounted for 69 of them on eight carries.
Durango took the lead back with 3:26 remaining in the game when junior running back Dawson Marcum slipped through the defense for a 9-yard touchdown run that made it 28-27 to set up with game-winning drive.
“Honestly, our defense, we killed ourselves,” Roper said. “But we were able to come back from the adversity and we played hard.”
The win moves the Tigers into the semifinals, where they’ll play No. 8 Longmont. Longmont upset No. 1 Mead 30-26.
The loss ends the high school careers of a DHS senior class that has helped build the Demons’ status as a dangerous football program at the state level.
“They left a legacy,” Vogt said of the senior class. “They’ve carried on the Durango way and now all the young kids know what it takes because (the seniors) showed the way. We need to continue that every year, and they did a great job of it this year.”
Manasseh Brockus and Mestas, both captains for this year’s squad, said that while the loss is tough to deal with, the season as a whole was a success and the time they had playing for the Demons outweighs the feeling of defeat.
“It was definitely a great season,” Mestas said. “It was a tough, tough loss, but we left a legacy as seniors and I don’t regret anything. I enjoyed every moment. The younger kids need to understand how fast time flies and they need to enjoy it.”
“High school football, especially in this town, is a special thing,” Brockus said. “It’s a surreal feeling ... but man I loved playing here. I’ll never forget this experience, and quite frankly I wouldn’t have wanted to go out anywhere else. I’m happy I got to go out in my home town.”