They had talked about it for nine years. If any group of players could get back to where they had been in 1988, it was this class of seniors.
Durango High School has not played in a state championship football game since 1988, a 23-13 loss to mighty Grand Junction – the only team to beat the Demons during a 12-2 season. That drought will end Saturday when No. 3 Durango (7-0) meets the No. 1 Roosevelt Rough Riders (7-0) for the CHSAA Class 3A state championship in Pueblo. And while this group of Demons has made rare history, a handful of players from the 1988 team predicted it long ago after watching their own sons begin to play the sport in elementary school.
“I get goosebumps talking about it,” said 1991 DHS graduate Ryan Woolverton, a kicker who sent the Demons to the 1998 championship game with a game-winning overtime field goal in the semifinals. “We knew it was a possibility with this crew and have known it for years. If we were going to make it back, this was the group to do it. After this year’s semifinals and as the celebration went on, I had to sit down and take it in for a second. It’s just crazy how the world works. Doing this back in ’88, going on and then moving back to Durango and having kids who get to play with the kids of the guys I played with and having our kids now playing for a state championship all these years later, words don’t describe how special it is.”
Jordan Woolverton, the Demons’ senior quarterback and safety, is one of three Durango seniors who had fathers play on the 1988 team. Wide receiver Niko Mestas is the son of 1988 senior receiver Brian Mestas, a longtime youth coach of this current group. DHS lineman Haezen Mestas is the son of Joey Mestas, who was the star running back of the ’88 squad. Brian and Joey are also the uncles of DHS senior wide receiver Gage Mestas.
Ryan Woolverton has gone from hero kicker of the Demons to offensive coordinator on the Durango coaching staff, giving him another shot at an elusive state championship ring this weekend.
“My dad, Niko’s dad, Haezen’s dad, they all get together and talk about that 1988 team,” Jordan Woolverton said. “It’s always been our goal since third grade to get to this position one of our years in high school. We wanted to get to the same position as them, and it’s awesome to say that we’ve done that. But now we want to take it one step further and be able to say we won that game. We are focused this week on trying to get that win for our dads, our families and the town of Durango as a whole. We haven’t been there in awhile, and we are excited for the opportunity to represent this town in a championship game.”
The boys all ask their fathers which team would win if they played each other. It’s a complicated answer for many. Both sides think their respective generation would come out on top.
This year’s team is led by a powerful offensive line that averages 260 pounds. Linemen such as center Jason Saul on the ’88 team were much smaller. Saul weighed in at 152 pounds and stood 5-foot-10. Sophomore center Joshua Bates on the 2020 team is 6-4 and 280 pounds.
Both teams had incredible skill players. Joey Mestas was a nearly unstoppable tailback in ’88, drawing some comparisons to 2020 star Ben Finneseth, a wide receiver first who has been thrust into running back duties and shined this season by breaking through tackles with brute force. Both guys are tough to tackle, but for different reasons.
“I don’t know if it’s that defenses didn’t want to tackle me, they just couldn’t catch me,” Joey Mestas said. “We had built this great team. We had a small line that didn’t weight much, but we were a fast team and incredibly tough.”
So which team would win, head coach Brian Hester’s group in 1988 or David Vogt’s team in 2020?
“There is no right answer and no wrong answer here,” said DHS radio broadcaster Don Piccoli, a 1979 DHS alum who began calling Demons games in 1987. “In terms of athletes, this year’s team has athleticism and size. In terms of toughness, and not taking anything away from these boys, but that ’88 team was as tough as they come. When you have 160-pound linemen knocking 240-pound guys backward, that’s tough. And that team was so incredibly prepared. That coaching staff had scouted Grand Junction so well. They had every possible scenario figured out and how to defend it.
“My answer, it would be a tie 21-21. Shake hands and all celebrate together.”
The 1988 team had the unenviable task of playing Grand Junction twice that year. First was a Week 6 matchup the Demons lost 27-16. They would go unbeaten the rest of the regular season to get in position for a rematch.
DHS started the playoffs with a 28-0 win against Skyview before a narrow 10-8 win at Niwot in the quarterfinals. The Demons would return home to play Loveland in the state semifinals and went into overtime tied 21-21. The defense got four big stops and, after gaining a couple of yards on offense, the Demons elected to kick a field goal on third down. They turned to a sophomore first-year kicker in Ryan Woolverton, a converted soccer player who assistant coach Steve Thyfault discovered in gym class, for the game-winning 23-yard field goal.
As soon as he kicked the ball, he turned to the sideline to celebrate the victory as Loveland watched it soar through the uprights.
“That Loveland game, I remember our little sophomore kid with that much pressure on him kicking us into the state championship,” said Mike Jaramillo, a senior cornerback on the ’88 team. “Knowing Ryan the way I know him, he was always an athletic kid regardless if it was soccer, football, basketball or baseball. That kick, he showed his competitiveness and grit.”
That gave Durango another chance against Grand Junction, which would finish the season ranked nationally with a handful of Division I players, including quarterback Doug Musgrave, who would go on to play at Michigan. He was the younger brother of Bill Musgrave, who starred in college at the University of Oregon and went on to a long NFL coaching career.
In the championship game, Durango would fall 23-13. It was the closest any team played the Tigers.
“Our first loss to Grand Junction, we had lost coach Thyfault’s mom that day. I remember the heartbreak of that loss paired with that,” Brian Mestas said. “We knew we weren’t going to win the league title, but we still had a chance to make the playoffs and make state. We kept fighting each week, a lot like this year’s team after some of their tough losses in previous years that have helped get them here now.”
Durango’s 12-2 record in 1988 matched the team record of 12 wins set in 1934, the year of Durango’s first of four previous title game appearances. DHS would lose to Brighton 13-0 that year to finish 12-1.
Durango again made the championship in 1946, suffering a 12-6 loss to Lakewood in a game played at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, which had a football field built inside the horse-racing track.
The Demons’ lone championship came in 1954 in a 7-7 tie with Lamar at the Fairgrounds. There were no overtime rules, and the teams were declared co-champions. DHS would not make it back until 1988, and it’s been another 32-year wait since then.
“I got to call a state championship game my first year in 1987 calling the Ignacio and Lyons game with Dave Bray,” Piccoli said. “It was cool to get to that level and be there for the final game of the season. For me, 1988 was my second year of doing play-by-play. The year before, Durango lost in the quarterfinals in Greeley. I was thinking we made the quarterfinals that year, the state championship next year, jeez I am going to be doing state games every year with this bunch. I didn’t realize it was going to take 32 years to do it again. I am afraid at this rate I won’t be around for the next championship game.
“But this year’s group of kids, they are as focused as any team I’ve ever seen. The fact they have done what they have done in a pandemic year in terms of quarantining and making sure everybody stays healthy and smart about it, it shows that they have that common goal in mind.”
The 2020 seniors began playing together in third grade. They went 40-1 in YAFL games played through sixth grade.
“Myself, Woolverton, Joey, Mike Sutter, their line coach now, we were all their coaches in YAFL,” Brian Mestas said. “We could see they had something special, and we tried to stick with them all through YAFL and junior high the way Steve Thyfault had stuck in there with all of us in our class back then. It’s been a great experience with these guys, and none of us are surprised they made it to state. We saw it when they were little kids, and they’ve won at every level. And when they finally did lose in high school, they didn’t like it much and worked that much harder and stuck together even closer. They have a lot of love for each other, and that’s what makes championship teams.”
Those who went to Miller Middle School never lost a game in two years as Angels, winning championships all along the way.
“I look back on specific teams I’ve coached. That group, they’re special,” said Jaramillo, who is the Miller Middle School head football coach. “They are a once in a generation team in a town like Durango. I don’t want that to seem negative to other teams I’ve coached because all have had their own special qualities. But I think this group in particular could be the most talented group that I’ve ever coached. We knew they were going to be special.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and with school being conducted online instead of in classrooms, Ryan Woolverton said there is a bit of a different feel to this championship week than he remembered from his playing days. Still, he can sense the buzz in the community like he did 32 years ago.
“Every game as we got closer to the state championship, we felt the community come around us and how electric it was,” Ryan Woolverton said. “This year, there’s obviously a lot of differences without having any pep assemblies, but that buzz is there. I am getting texts from people I don’t know and notes on Facebook from guys we played with back then. It’s pretty neat. I am just excited that our guys have played through so much adversity all year and have brought a lot of happiness and excitement and joy to people in Durango. It’s been a nice boost during tough times.”
And now with only the championship game left to play before their high school playing days are complete, the 2020 team is ready to play on the stage the Demons haven’t seen in so many years. And they are anxious for a victory to have some bragging rights at home.
“We are thankful to be here with this great opportunity,” Niko Mestas said. “I am so glad to have been able to play with my friends since third grade. This is a huge deal for us, and we can really capitalize this week and make history for our program that future teams that go through Durango can look to like we looked to our dads. They have helped prepare us for life and for us to have success. We are ready to come out on fire and do something special.”