‘Storybook’ ending for Coronado
Losing years washed away as ‘Comeback Cougars’ claw their way to state grid title
It sounds like a Disney movie.
The high school from the old Westside, a football doormat through most of its 43-year history, suddenly rises out of nowhere, not only winning the state championship but recovering from a deficit in each playoff game and scoring its final, go-ahead TD on a 99-yard fourth-quarter drive.
“They did it in their own way, in a heart-stopping way,” said Coronado Principal Marcia Landwehr at a school celebration assembly Dec. 3. “They truly are the 'Comeback Cougars.' ”
The team put its final stamp on that nickname - and the season as a whole - Nov. 30 in digging out of a 17-0 hole against defending state champion Silver Creek, which was playing on its home field in Longmont, to claim a 28-24 victory and the Colorado Division 3A trophy.
Coronado wound up 13-1 on the season, by far the best record in school history, with its only loss coming at the hands of Discovery Canyon in the regular season finale that cost the Cougars the South Central League title.
During the playoffs, Coronado had previously come back from 17 points down to Rifle in the first round (winning 34-31), 14 to Roosevelt in the quarterfinals (winning 29-27) and 7 to the Classical Academy in the semis (winning 28-27).
“It is storybook, every bit of it,” Coronado Coach Bobby Lizarraga said in an interview after the game. “It's been a pretty crazy ride.”
Sam Smith, who led the team in pass receptions and was second in tackles on defense, underscored the concept at the assembly. “Two years ago [when Coronado had a winless season], there's no way I would have believed it,” he said. He was accompanied at the microphone by the other team captains (twin brother Joah, the quarterback, who scored the winning touchdown; Zeb Foster, who led the team in tackles; Devon Baker, a defensive and offensive standout; and Austin Micci, second on the team in rushing yards and first in interceptions).
Timing-wise, the triumphant season came none too soon. Because of increased enrollment, Coronado football will have to move up next year to Division 4A, which consists of larger schools, although Lizarraga is optimistic, with 28 juniors and sophomores returning.
Part of the “storybook” for the championship game was the unexpected participation of Micci. He had missed the semifinals with a hairline fracture in his left foot (suffered against Roosevelt), but was cleared to play after a doctor's reassessment the day before Silver Creek and snagged a key pass interception.
But luck or destiny aside, it was hard work, dedication and a team-first attitude that made the real difference throughout the season, according to Lizarraga and others with the football program. The Cougar gridders have been practicing almost daily since January. Athletic Director Dave Howard described the final win as “an explosion of preparation.”
It also didn't hurt to have those other playoff comebacks under their belts. As Lizarraga related, with the score 17-0, “we told them, 'Bottom line there's no need to panic. Stay composed, don't get away from the game plan, continue to chunk away and expect things to favor us at some point.' We waited for our opportunities and took advantage of them.”
And what qualities did it take for his players to do all that? “Sheer determination,” the coach said, “and wanting to accomplish the goals they set out at the beginning of the season.”
Silver Creek's Raptors (10-3) were playing in their third consecutive state championship game. They beat Rifle, 32-15, last year and lost to Windsor, 14-7, in 2011.
The Longmont school seemed ready for a repeat right from the start, returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. When Coronado couldn't move the ball, Silver Creek scored its second TD, this time on a running play from scrimmage, then capitalized on a Cougar fumble to kick a field goal with 8:31 left in the second quarter.
Coronado finally got on the scoreboard with two late second quarter drives capped by Foster TD runs - the second drive aided by a 61-yard pass from Joah Smith to Junior York - and it was 17-14 at the half.
In the third quarter, Coronado took the lead, 21-14, on an 80-yard breakaway by running back Isaah Duvall, the team's leading rusher, who carried 21 times for 189 yards on the day.
But Silver Creek responded with a touchdown of its own and held a 24-21 advantage going into the fourth quarter.
With 11:31 left in the game, Coronado got the ball at its own 1-yard line.
Here is an account of the ensuing highlights, as reported by Tracy Renck for the Colorado High School Activities Association:
“Coronado moved the ball to its own 31-yard line, but it was facing another tough obstacle at 3rd-and-24. The pressure didn't faze quarterback Smith or his twin brother Sam, a receiver for the Cougars.
“Joah dropped back and lofted a deep pass to his brother who leaped over Silver Creek defenders and made the catch and run for a 43-yard gain at the 6:50 mark.
“ 'That was all him,' said Joah about the huge third-down conversion. 'I just threw it. He makes plays and he jumped up and caught it.'
“Just under three minutes later, Joah made the biggest play in Coronado football history by rolling right and scoring from 11 yards out. Jose Perez's PAT was tipped at the line of scrimmage, but the football had enough steam to get over the bar with 4:15 left.
“ 'It does take a quarterback with a lot of poise, and Joah has grown tremendously over the last four years,' Lizarraga said. 'He's a leader on and off the field. The Smith boys have that telepathy and they kept that last drive going.'
“Silver Creek had a chance to win the game, but its last drive ended when [the Raptors] only managed 14 yards on a 4th down and 24 play from their own 44-yard line. Coronado took over possession with 1:02 remaining and ran out the clock.”
Lizarraga is in his fourth year as Coronado's head coach and has been with the program since 1999. As such, he has endured several of the school's worst seasons, including 0-10 in both 2011 and 2009. But he believes the past players should be honored for giving it all they had, despite often being out-manned in their day. “For everyone who ever wore a Coronado football jersey, this belongs to you also,” the coach told the assembly.
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