State football championships in Colorado have been contested by high schools since 1921. Ninety-six years after the first title game was played, Bayfield High School is set to host its first.
Saturday will bring the first state championship game to La Plata County since 1968 and the first one ever for Bayfield, who has played in three others on the road. The Wolverines have made it to the semifinals in the 16-team field in five of the last seven years, winning a state title in 2015 to give the 1996 state championship trophy some company in the trophy case outside the Bayfield gymnasium.
Before 1921, informal and unofficial teams were organized by students who played few games, and usually against local citizen teams. Those early championships in the 1920s matched the best from the south against the best from the north. Curiously, not all leagues chose to participate. For instance, the Denver schools (then just Denver North, South, East and West) did not send a team to the tournament. There were no classifications to separate small schools from the larger ones until 1933.
Football in Southwest Colorado got an official start in 1923 with the creation of the San Juan Basin League. Bayfield and Durango played until Dolores and Cortez put teams together later in the 1920s.
Despite having an 8-1-1 record in 1931 whereby the only loss was a disputed forfeit to Farmington, and an equally successful 9-1 season in 1933 with the lone loss coming to Montrose, the San Juan Basin League did not send its champion Demons to the state tournament.
In 1934, La Plata County finally got a playoff team, as coach Sam Roberts’ Durango Demons finished undefeated and went to the Class B tournament. It was an eight-team affair. Durango beat Limon and then Fowler in two close, low-scoring games to reach the finals against Brighton. All three games were played on the road. Residents gathered at Gardenswartz on Main Avenue to get the score, as Roberts agreed to call in the score after each quarter on a special telephone hookup. A large crowd was disappointed, because the Demons lost 13-0.
Durango played the first championship game in the county in 1946. The game was played at the La Plata County Fairgrounds against Lakewood. By that time, there were three classifications – AA, A and B – and Durango was in the middle group. The four-team tournament was said to attract 2,000 people for the title game, won 12-6 by Lakewood.
The Demons finally won it all – well, half of it – in 1954 when they hosted Lamar at the fairgrounds with 2,200 people in attendance. Led all season by the running of Jerry Timm, the game ended in a 7-7 tie. Without any overtime games in that era, the teams were declared co-champions.
Durango has made the playoffs 25 times since they were named co-champions more than 60 years ago but has only reached the finals once, in 1988. In a rematch with Grand Junction, they played at Stocker Stadium and fell to the Bill Musgrave-led Tigers.
Cortez had a glorious year in 1957 when they reached the finals and hosted Trinidad for the AA title. Trinidad won the game, and Montezuma-Cortez High School has yet to reach the finals again.
Mancos, Dove Creek and Dolores have not been able to reach that elusive final championship game in their football history. Pagosa Springs has played some competitive football, but only once, in 1959, did they reach the championship game, falling to Limon by the unbelievable score of 85-0.
Ignacio began its football tradition in 1949. The Bobcats reached the small school title game in 1968 against powerhouse Limon. Limon, the state record holder with 16 state championships to its credit, got one when they visited Ignacio, winning by an astounding 86-26 score. It would be the last state championship football game played in La Plata County but not the last one for the Bobcats. Twenty years after the first title game, the Bobcats went to Lyons where coach Juvie Jones’ team trailed by a touchdown with two minutes left in the 1987 game. Chris Herrera, father of Fort Lewis College basketball great Alex Herrera, scored on an 85-yard punt return, but the 2-point conversion attempt fell inches short, unless you talk to the Bobcat faithful who, to this day, dispute that ruling.
Bayfield was playing 6-man football when it went to its first playoff in 1954. After some success in the mid-60s, the Wolverines were unable to get any playoff wins beyond winning a pre-tournament playoff against their San Luis Valley counterpart until 1996, when three lucky coin tosses gave the team home-field advantage through the semifinals. The championship game was in Meeker, and Bayfield prevailed, 14-0, for its first title and the first “outright” title in the Four Corners area of Southwest Colorado.
Bayfield again reached the finals in 2011, but again it was on the road in Denver where they lost to Florence. The 2015 championship game was played in Kersey, near Greeley, and the Wolverines won their second title that year by beating Platte Valley.
Dan Ford is a football historian. He can be reached at www.danfordsports.net.