The last two state champions in Colorado’s Class 2A are set to meet for the 2017 state championship. It’s the ultimate tiebreaker for schools that have eliminated each other in the semifinals before going on to claim their titles.
After upsets filled the Colorado High School Activities Association Class 2A State Football Playoffs in the first two rounds, the two best teams rose to the top and took care of business on the road in the semifinals. All that is left is the championship game between No. 3 Bayfield (12-0) and No. 4 La Junta (11-1).
Bayfield beat La Junta 47-7 in the 2015 semifinals in Bayfield and went on to beat Platte Valley 28-20 in Kersey for the school’s second state title and first since 1996.
In 2016, it was La Junta that beat Bayfield 14-13 in the semifinals in La Junta, and the Tigers went on to beat Kent Denver 17-10 to capture the school’s sixth football championship and first since 1958.
“We are going to gain energy from the physical factor of being here and the energy you get from being in the championship game,” said Bayfield head coach Gary Heide. “We’re holding onto what we learned from the 2015 team and the semifinals last year. We’re all one Bayfield, and whatever we’ve learned from the past has stayed with us.”
The two teams have a similar pedigree. They play strong defense, remain disciplined and have earned the devotion of their fan bases.
“It’s the discipline, really,” Bayfield senior Wyatt Killinen said. “To be a good football team, you have to play disciplined. There is a reason both of our teams are in the state final.”
Bayfield has the top defensive unit in the state but will surely be tested by a La Junta team centered around talented junior quarterback Jon Nuschy.
Nuschy passed for 153 yards and two touchdowns against the Wolverines in last year’s semifinals, and he ran for another 80 yards. This season, Nuschy has completed 52.9 percent of his passes for 619 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. His skill as a runner is tremendous, as he has rushed for 1,430 yards and 22 touchdowns this season. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in eight games and boasts an average of 7.2 yards per carry.
Bayfield has the top run defense in the state and has held five consecutive rushers who have entered a game with more than 1,000 yards to less than 50 rushing yards.
“We have to stop their quarterback,” said Bayfield senior Dax Snooks. “He’s their No. 1 player. He likes to run quite a bit, but he has rollout pass plays that I think they will try to use on us more than they usually do.”
Bayfield has 56 quarterback sacks this season, and whether or not the Wolverines can bring down Nuschy in the backfield will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game. Bayfield has 56 sacks this season and is only four sacks away from matching the state record of 60 set by Discovery Canyon in 2014. The Wolverines have averaged 4.25 sacks per game this year, led by 20 from senior defensive end Ryan Phelps. His 20 sacks are five more than the entire La Junta team this season.
“Honestly, I have like a little thing where I don’t like any quarterback,” Phelps said.
“Their quarterback is a stud, no doubt about that.”
The Wolverines recorded nine sacks, led by four from Cole Wood, against the Tigers in last year’s semifinal, but it was Nuschy who led the game-clinching drive late in the fourth quarter.
“I just remember that final drive when we were trying to stop them and get the ball back,” said Bayfield senior Carl Heide. “They drove on us all the way down. We couldn’t get a stop, and they ran the clock out on us. That has stuck in my mind.”
Bayfield’s defense has allowed only 49 points through 12 games and is riding a school record streak of five consecutive shutout victories. The team has eight shutouts this season. No team in the history of Colorado has recorded four shutouts in the playoffs since brackets were expanded to 16 teams. More than 240 champions have been crowned across seven classifications during that 35-year stretch. The last shutout in a state championship game was recorded by Valor Christian in 2012.
As impressive as any of Bayfield’s shutouts is the performance from the defense in the second half of games this season. The Wolverines have allowed only 13 points in the second half all season and only seven in the fourth quarter.
“They’re really good and really big and really fast,” La Junta head coach Clint Buderus told the La Junta Tribune-Democrat.
“They’re a good football team, and there’s a reason they’re here. They haven’t given up any points in the playoffs, and they’re the real deal.”
Nuschy also plays defense for the Tigers and is tied for the team lead with 60 tackles along with senior Wyatt Buhr. With the Tigers traveling to Bayfield, which is nearly 3,000 feet higher in elevation than La Junta, it will be important for the Tigers to find the right time to get their star some rest if they want to keep up with Bayfield for four quarters.
Buhr also is a key piece to the La Junta offense. He is second on the team with 898 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns and has averaged 8.2 yards per carry.
Coach Heide expects a physical game with the two rushing attacks going head-to-head.
“The atmosphere and the physicality and determination of the La Junta Tigers is what I remember most,” Heide said of last year’s game. “I remember it was a super well-coached team, and we didn’t get as many points as we want – 13 points is not the standard of our offense, but it was a tribute to their coaching staff and tenacity of the young men they have.”
Bayfield’s offense is greatly improved from a year ago. The Wolverines as a team have rushed for more than 2,800 yards and 31 touchdowns. Three players – Carl Heide, Hunter Killough and David Hawkins – have rushed for more than 500 yards, with Heide only 125 yards away from a 1,000-yard season.
“It’s definitely a lot more spread out this year,” Carl Heide said. “The ball is going to everyone. We’re passing a lot more than previous years, too. Everyone can make a play. If they give us the run, we’re gonna take the run and be confident in it. If they give us a pass, we’ll take it and be confident in that, too.”
Bayfield junior quarterback Hayden Farmer has had the best single-season of any QB in school history. His 32 touchdowns are a single-season record, and he has passed for 1,865 yards. He has been intercepted nine times but boasts a quarterback rating of 115.6.
“They’re the exact same thing they were a year ago,” Buderus said. “They’re a lot of double slot, some trips and doubles. They mix it up. They like to run the football, but they’re really dangerous at the receiver spots. Their quarterback is a good kid and they’re very, very talented and they’re pretty good up front.”
While teams have been able to play with Bayfield in the first half this year, it’s been all Wolverines in the second half of games. That’s where the Wolverines plan to shine again Saturday.
“We’re strong mentally,” Bayfield senior Kirk Malone said.
“I think teams expect to hang with us. We get to the second half and then we wear them down time after time. I trust my guys to keep battering and battering and never give up. We punch ’em in the mouth one more time, and eventually, it’s gonna be a knockout.”
Buderus did not return a call seeking additional comments.