Smiles, not tears. That’s the way the Durango High School football team wanted to leave its home field for the final time in 2020. The Demons left the field with those smiles and their first state quarterfinal win since 1997 on Saturday afternoon.
Behind a dominant defensive performance and plenty of explosive plays, No. 3 Durango (6-0) rolled past No. 6 Lutheran for a 47-6 victory at the DHS stadium in the Colorado High School Activities Association Class 3A State Football Playoffs. After quarterfinal losses in 2015, 2017 and 2019, the Demons have finally reached the semifinals again.
“This is the best unity we’ve had. Everyone actually believes things can happen,” DHS senior Ford Pitts said. “There’s that stigma sometimes that you’re just a team that can’t make it. I think right now, with what we have, it’s a confidence we are actually capable of winning state. I think we’re literally the best football team we’ve had the last four years.”
Durango will face No. 2 Holy Family (7-0) next Saturday in Broomfield, and the winner will advance to the CHSAA Class 3A state championship game. Holy Family did its part with a 41-6 victory against Evergreen in the quarterfinals on Friday night.
“Our guys are ready to go,” DHS senior quarterback and safety Jordan Woolverton said. “We are ready to go play a semifinal game against a very good team in Holy Family. We can’t wait to get back to work and be ready for a big game again Saturday.”
Durango’s defense forced five turnovers Saturday with four interceptions and a fumble recovery by Pitts. Woolverton capitalized on those mistakes by the Lions with three long touchdown passes, while senior Ben Finneseth ripped off two huge touchdown runs to go with a touchdown catch.
The Demons did it once more without the aid of any home fans because of health guidelines in place by the school district during the COVID-19 pandemic that has altered the landscape of high school football all season.
But more than 100 faithful supporters lined up on the outside of the stadium fence on the north side of the stadium. It was a raucous crowd that brought a true playoff football atmosphere despite the empty stadium stands.
“Football is a great game. In my opinion, it is the best game in the world,” Woolverton said. “Seeing how many people were out there, for people to show up like that with no fans in the stadium, it meant everything to us. Knowing we have the support from this town, it motivates us and makes us want to keep winning.”
Woolverton finished the game 7-of-11 passing for 153 yards and three TDs. He added 60 rushing yards and another score.
“He ran hard for us and played really well,” DHS head coach David Vogt said. “That’s what you need from your quarterback in the playoffs.”
Finneseth ran for 150 yards and two TDs on six carries and had three catches for 50 yards and a TD. Wide receiver Gage Mestas had two catches for 65 yards and a score.
“That was probably our best game ever,” Finneseth said. “We had a blast out there playing together. This is the best group of guys we’ve ever had, and it is so fun playing with them.”
The Demons held Lutheran quarterback Clayton Jacobs to 10-of-22 passing for 104 yards, a fumble lost and three interceptions, while backup quarterback Andrew Kornbach played on two drives and also was intercepted on the game’s final play.
Dorian Pacheco led the Lutheran rushing attack with 73 yards, most coming on a 55-yard run.
Durango was dominant from start to finish Saturday. After the defense got a quick stop on the opening possession of the game, the Demons would march 60 yards in only six plays. Woolverton earned a big first down on third-and-7 with a 12-yard run. On the next play, he rolled to his right to escape pressure and fired a laser pass to Finneseth for a 21-yard touchdown to make it 7-0 Demons with 9:03 to play in the first quarter.
“I saw Ben create separation to the front pylon. He’s my athlete who is going to go make a play for me,” Woolverton said. “I put the throw right on that pylon and let him go get it. He made the play to get the touchdown.”
The scoring opportunity almost never came, though. DHS junior running back Nate Messier broke free on a 19-yard run but was caught from behind and lost the ball. With a Lutheran defender right there ready to grab the ball, Durango lineman Walter Stauffer came out of nowhere to recover the ball to keep it in Durango’s possession.
It would be the first Lutheran turnover that led to Durango’s second touchdown. Jacobs and one of his running backs botched a handoff, and the ball found the hands of Pitts on the Lutheran 36-yard line.
“I did my job on that blitz,” Pitts said. “I kept outside and saw the pulling guard coming my way and knew the play was coming at me. I felt like the running back taking the ball out of their hands. Do your job and the highlights come to you.”
Durango thought it had a touchdown on a throw from Woolverton to Mestas, but the score came back on a holding penalty. But the Demons went right back to Mestas on fourth-and-20, and he hauled in a wide open pass in the end zone for a 27-yard score to make it 14-0 as time expired in the first quarter.
“I trust Gage. He’s an athlete with speed and one of our best receivers,” Woolverton said. “They knew the play we were running from the play before, and we went right back to it and scored on it again. Props to Gage for getting open on the route. I was able to just lay it up there for him to make that catch.”
Lutheran tried to take a shot down the field on its next series, but Woolverton would intercept Jacobs in single coverage down the middle of the field for his fourth defensive interception of the season.
The Lions would get a defensive stop and finally earned their initial first down of the game on offense at the 7:10 mark of the second quarter. The drive would continue all the way to the Durango 10-yard line before Chase Robertson intercepted Jacobs in the end zone for his third interception of the season.
One play later, Finneseth broke free for an 80-yard touchdown. That made it 20-0 with 5:12 to go in the first half.
“At any point he can go,” Vogt said of Finneseth. “He broke four tackles and outran all the guys at the end. He’s such a weapon with that size, speed and strength. That was a huge touchdown.”
Forty yards into the run, Finneseth hit a Lutheran safety with a big stiff arm. It sent the safety into one of his fellow defensive players, and both crashed to the turf. Finneseth ran free to the end zone from there, and the game never felt close again.
“I didn’t see what happened behind me, but the guys all said it was sweet when I threw him into the other kid,” Finneseth said. “I was just praying nobody else would catch me. Thanks to those five guys up front. There are no five linemen in the state I’d rather have than the guys on our line. It’s insane how good they are.”
On Lutheran’s next series, Durango’s Kyler Reimers would sack Jacobs on a fourth-down play to get a turnover on downs. That gave DHS the ball back on its own 48 with 2:02 to play in the first half.
Throwing into a heavy wind, Woolverton would connect with Mestas on a 38-yard pass to the Lutheran 8. Two plays later, Woolverton scored on a 2-yard TD run to make it 26-0 going into halftime.
Durango got the ball first in the third quarter. In six plays, the Demons went 72 yards and scored on a 35-yard TD run by Finneseth untouched up the middle of the field, and that made it 33-0.
Lutheran would have one bright spot in the game. After the Lions turned it over on downs again, it looked as though Durango might score again and start a mercy-rule running clock with a 40-point lead. But, that would have to wait. Messier would be stripped of the ball while fighting for extra yards on a 7-yard run. One play later, Jacobs hit Colton Thewes on a swing pass. Thewes bounced off two tacklers on the sideline and ran 57 yards for a touchdown. The extra point was no good, and Durango’s lead was cut to 33-6.
Durango would have to punt on its next possession. But Lutheran could do nothing with the ball, as William Knight batted down a fourth-down pass at the line of scrimmage to force another turnover on downs.
With the ball back, Woolverton would dial up a 30-yard TD pass through the wind to Robertson, who caught the pass in the end zone despite contact with his defender who had his back turned to the ball.
“To see a play we work on all week that we think is going to be an explosive play then work in a game, it’s satisfying to get those in the end zone,” Woolverton said. “We got a few of those today.”
Durango’s third interception of the game would come a few plays later from linebacker Cole Matava. He sat in his zone defense and snatched a Jacobs pass out of the air. Durango focused on running out the clock from there behind big gains from Jeric Baruch, who would score on a 7-yard run to deliver the mercy-rule running clock with Durango ahead 47-6 with under six minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
As Lutheran tried to mount one final scoring drive, Zach Haber would get his third interception of the year for the Demons defense to end the game on a high note.
It was all smiles, no tears.
“We’ve been working for this since third grade all together this senior class,” Woolverton said. “This was our last game together on this field. I wouldn’t want to go out any other way than with a win.”
Now, Durango will get back to work during Thanksgiving week, a time of the season the Demons have been so used to turning in equipment and switching gears to winter sports season. Not this year, not this team.
It is on to Broomfield to face Holy Family. The game is set for 1 p.m. Saturday, and 75 Durango fans will be able to purchase tickets for the game.
“We have to work even harder now,” Finneseth said. “We’ve seen what we can do to a state playoff team. We are going to come at it and work even harder this week and bring it even more next week.”