No fans. No Jordan Woolverton. No Ben Finneseth. No Gage Mestas. Durango High School will have anything but an advantage at home Friday night.
It’s a school-mandated quarantine for Finneseth and Woolverton, the team’s two leading touchdown scorers in 2020, while Mestas is doubtful to play after he suffered a concussion in the first quarter in a win at Pueblo East last Saturday. Those three have factored in 16 of Durango’s 22 offensive touchdowns so far this season.
If the Class 3A third-ranked Demons (4-0, 2-0 3A South Central League) are going to prevail at 6 p.m. Friday night against No. 10 Cañon City (3-1, 3-1 SCL), it is going to take a massive team effort. And it will come in front of an empty stadium, as San Juan Basin Public Health informed DHS on Thursday evening that no spectators, cheerleaders or band members will be permitted inside DHS stadium for the game because of a spike in COVID-19 cases in La Plata County.
“I am going to be watching it from home in my bed,” said Woolverton, who has not tested positive for COVID-19 but was placed in quarantine along with Finneseth after close contact with an athletic trainer who tested positive for the virus. “I have full confidence in our guys to go get it. Ben and I, we haven’t been the base of the team all year. It’s the five guys on the line that are the base of our team. They have led us to a 4-0 start. It’s Ethan Ryan, Nate Howland, Josh Bates, Rocco Estes and Walter Stauffer. Those guys are leading us, and as long as they are there, we can win against any team in the state.”
It will be a mighty challenge against a physical team from Cañon City that is also playing for its state playoff life with one loss and currently ranked outside the top eighth with only eight teams to make the state playoffs during this shortened fall season.
Durango will turn to junior Jordan Stanley at quarterback with freshman Tyler Harms to back him up. Stanley was the team’s backup quarterback as a freshman and starred in his days playing the position in YAFL and Miller Middle School. But he has since shifted his focus largely to baseball before deciding to play football again and serving as everything from a running back to wide receiver on offense as well as a linebacker and safety on defense.
Stanley has thrown one career pass as a varsity quarterback. It was a 5-yard completion in 2018.
“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity,” Stanley said. “Losing Ben and Jordan, it’s a big loss. But all of our guys have stepped it up this week and are making plays I’ve never seen them make before. It’s been awhile since I played quarterback, but I love the position and have had a good week to prepare.
“Playing baseball, I have traveled across the country and played in some big venues in Texas and Oklahoma, but nothing beats playing a home football game in Durango under the lights.”
While plenty of focus will be on Stanley and the offensive line, it will also give junior running back Nate Messier another chance to shine. He has a team-high 264 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 42 carries this year. Messier has played the last two weeks through a sprained MCL in one of his knees and has been limited on touches, but he broke a 32-yard TD run last week at Pueblo East after two rushing scores a week earlier against Evergreen.
DHS head coach David Vogt said Messier has had a strong week of practice.
“We’ve been playing together since fourth grade,” Stanley said of Messier. “Back in my quarterback days, we had a really good connection in the run game. I’m very confident in the moves he makes and how he follows his blockers, and he has gotten a lot more powerful.”
DHS also can look to Kyler Reimers in the backfield. He has 77 yards on only eight carries this year.
At receiver, Chase Robertson is expected to lead the Demons. He has three catches for 82 yards and a touchdown this season. Niko Mestas, Tagert Bardin and Ean Goodwin also will factor into the equation.
“This team is so blessed with skill guys,” Vogt said. “We need the young skill guys to step up and make plays. We’ve still been explosive in practice, and that is encouraging.”
The DHS defense will have the tough task of slowing massive running back Dylan O’Rourke, a junior who has 224 yards and five touchdowns on 49 carries this year. Tigers quarterback Lucas Walcott, a senior, is another dual-threat who has 537 yards passing with seven touchdowns to zero interceptions while he has completed 64.7% of his passes this year. He also has run for 127 yards and two scores.
Walcott has 6-foot-5 receiver Seth Newton and 6-1 receiver Josh Rall as go-to targets with Garrett Bradley as a strong slot weapon. They have combined for 513 yards and eight receiving touchdowns.
Durango’s three offensive stars who will miss the game also are the team’s top defensive backs. That leaves additional holes to fill.
“Robertson has really stepped up at safety for us all year, and Zach Haber has incredible ball skills in coverage,” Vogt said. “Cañon City has their two big receivers and a 230-pound running back. We will have to be physical and bring heat on the quarterback. We have some special defenses set up for that.”
Stanley also said he expects junior Chase Medenwaldt to have a big game for the Demons.
“He may be undersized, but he has been locking down tall receivers all year,” Stanley said.
Cañon City has been one of the toughest teams in Class 3A this year with lopsided wins against Pueblo Centennial and Pueblo Central. The Tigers beat Pueblo East 21-18 in Week 2, while DHS beat the Eagles 45-20 last week.
The lone loss for the Tigers came last week to No. 5 Pueblo South (3-0, 3-0 SCL) in a 26-21 defeat.
“To beat a great team like this, we have to really lean on our offensive line and play clean,” Vogt said. “We can’t have penalties and put ourselves in any bad situations. We have averaged over 200 yards a game on the ground this year, and our line is ready for the challenge again. They are ready to step up and take a load off our other guys.”
The motto for Durango all season has been “be ready.” Through a year full of adversity, with a league championship on the line and a potential home playoff game next week, Vogt also knows a loss might mean DHS misses the eight-team state playoffs entirely. The Demons have plenty to play for
“Our kids are rallying for our guys who can’t be here,” Vogt said. “We feel for them. Today after practice, all the kids were saying, ‘We gotta win this game for the guys.’ The kids understand how important it is and how Ben and Jordan are feeling. It’s not a good feeling when you’re helpless. We are going to go out there and give everything we have for those guys.”