The chance at a season-defining game Week 1 against Pueblo South was denied to the Demons. Chalk it up to another lost event because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Durango’s season opener at home against Class 3A No. 1 Pueblo South was canceled on the eve of the game when a Colts player tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Unable to find a new opponent on short notice, Durango High School’s football team was idle while most of the rest of the state began the shortened fall schedule.
“It’s very tough and frustrating,” said DHS senior quarterback Jordan Woolverton when news broke of the cancellation. “We have been so excited all week and working hard to get back in rhythm of things. To have this happen the night before the game, it’s tough. It’s gut-wrenching for our team. We all know it’s gut-wrenching for South, as well. They wanted to play just as bad. It shows us what can happen if we’re not careful. It’s really something that hits home.”
Durango still went through a walk-through practice Friday to stay sharp in the hopes a game could get added to the schedule. But DHS was the odd team left out with nine games scheduled for Week 1 canceled. Most other teams were able to find a replacement game.
So, No. 3 DHS got an extra week to prepare for what is now the season opener Saturday at Mitchell High School in Colorado Springs.
“We are fired up,” said Woolverton. “The guys are excited, and practices have been electric.”
The fall football season was already delayed six weeks because of the pandemic after it was originally postponed until the spring. CHSAA and Gov. Jared Polis came together in September and agreed to revisions to health orders that will allow rosters of up to 50 players to compete this fall. With a choice to keep a spring season or have two weeks to prepare for a newly approved fall season, nearly 80% of schools across Colorado agreed to begin a fall season.
Durango played in a Pueblo-based league the previous four seasons but was set to join a Colorado Springs league in 2020. But, because of the changes created by COVID-19, leagues were redrawn, and new schedules were created by CHSAA. It put Durango back into the Pueblo-based league. Mitchell was slated to be a league opponent before the reshuffling, and it was the lone team from Durango’s new league to remain on the Demons’ schedule.
Only eight teams will make the state playoffs this year, which is down from 16 in a normal season. Now with only five games on the regular-season schedule, DHS must be careful not to have any of its own positive cases and will hope the rest of its opponents also remain healthy enough to play. Teams must complete at least four games to be postseason eligible under current rules.
Woolverton will orchestrate the DHS offense as a third-year starter. After recently receiving a preferred walk-on offer from the University of Colorado, the senior slinger is eager to get back on the field after an offseason of hard work in which he got taller and stronger while he worked to perfect his throwing motion.
Last season, he passed for 1,941 yards, 23 touchdowns and only three interceptions while he completed 73.6% of his passes. He also ran for 1,005 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Woolverton returned his top two receivers from a year ago in Ben Finneseth and Gage Mestas, now both seniors. Finneseth hauled in 49 passes for 785 yards and nine touchdowns, while Mestas added 626 yards and seven scores on 34 catches during an injury-shortened season. Both receivers have college aspirations, though Mestas’ comes on the baseball diamond. Finneseth has top Division II offers as well as some from Ivy League schools.
“We are feeling really good, most prepared we’ve ever been,” Finneseth said. “We have a lot of guys returning from last year. It will be a big year for us. The O-line guys have been together since third grade and the skill guys are all back from last year. We are ready to get after it.”
DHS lost left tackle Carver Willis from last season. The big-time recruit went to Kansas State and saw action last weekend against Texas Tech. The team also lost right tackle Fynn Hyson to graduation.
But DHS has another prized recruit on his way up on the offensive line in sophomore center Josh Bates, son of Justin Bates, a former CU Buffalo who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys out of college. Bates, who is 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, is joined on the line by returners Ethan Ryan and Nate Howland as well as new starters Rocco Estes and Walt Stauffer.
Finneseth said the line averages 240 pounds this year when in many previous years it has averaged 190 pounds.
“I think the line is going to be even better than last year,” Woolverton said. “We’ve got size everywhere I walk into the huddle, and I am looking up at all of them. It’s cool to have guys in there like that who want to get after it.”
The big question for Durango comes in how it will replace Everett Howland, a 1,400-yard rusher from a year ago who also led the team in total tackles at middle linebacker.
While Finneseth and Mestas may see time in the backfield, the first chance will go to junior running back Nate Messier, who rushed for 312 yards and three touchdowns in seven games last season.
Defensively, the answer to replacing Howland comes in the form of senior Thomas Barnes. He was fifth on the team in tackles a year ago with 52. Barnes is eager to fill in the shoes of talented middle linebackers before him such as Manasseh Brockus, Max Hyson and Howland.
“Defensively, we have an amazing team,” Barnes said. “The secondary is fast, the defensive line is strong and fast. Since (Brockus) and (Hyson), the defense has always been fast and strong. For me, it’s something I take as an honor to play this position. Going into freshman year, I was a scared little kid who didn’t know what to do. But all the linebackers in front of me, and Everett and Gus (Kidd) last year, they’ve passed something on to me to help me be here today. I’ve been impacted by those older guys who took me under their wing and taught me everything. It’s something special here at Durango.”
DHS has nine returning starters on defense from last year. That gives head coach David Vogt a lot of confidence in the way the team communicates signals on the field.
On special teams, Durango is happy to have kicker Sam Carozza in from the DHS boys soccer team. He will fill the role that former soccer player Caleb McGrath shined in during the 2019 season.
“He’s been working really hard,” Vogt said of Carozza. “He looks good, so that takes the pressure off (Woolverton) and (Mestas) and they can just focus on making plays.”
Mitchell will enter the game 0-1 after a 48-14 loss Week 1 to Discovery Canyon. The Marauders have only 29 players on the roster, led by senior quarterback Macy Davenport II. Davenport passed for 156 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in Week 1. The Marauders totaled only 10 rushing yards. Marauders junior Christian Zamora led the defense with six tackles, including one sack. Senior Matthew Thompson did force two fumbles against Discovery Canyon. He recovered one.
After this weekend’s game, it’s another Saturday trip to face Pueblo County before a Oct. 30 home game with Pueblo Centennial. DHS will travel to face Pueblo East at 1 p.m. Nov. 7 before a home finale Nov. 13 against Cañon City.
“We’ve are familiar with everybody, which makes it good, and our kids know the level of play,” Vogt said of the three familiar Pueblo opponents. “We just have to play championship football every week.”