Coming off its first undefeated regular season since 1978, the Mancos High School football team knew that it would be seeded well in Colorado’s eight-man tournament.
What the Bluejays might not have expected was a tough first-round round matchup against a talented Merino High School football team that appears far better than its No. 15 seeding might indicate.
While the Bluejays are acutely aware of the task they face on their home field on Saturday at 1 p.m., they can draw confidence from their 14-6 victory over Merino on Sept. 8.
Merino, which finished its season with a 5-4 record, was ranked as high as No. 3 in the state this season before three consecutive losses during the middle of the season knocked them out of the Top 10.
Blue-and-white clad fans are likely to be out in droves to watch their team play, and if the first nine games of the season are an indication, the Bluejays are up to the task of advancing to the second round.
Below are some storylines to watch during what could very well be one of Colorado’s most hotly contested and exciting prep football games this year.
Can Bluejays runners dominate?Among the most important questions for the Bluejays is whether their running game can be as effective as it has been throughout this season.
Utilizing one of the most diverse rushing attacks, which featured four rushers that each amassed 450 yards and seven touchdowns, the Bluejays ran the ball for 2895 yards this season and scored 40 total touchdowns on the ground.
Tops among Bluejays’ ball carriers was senior Garcia, whose power and speed allowed him to rush for 1,122 yards and 16 touchdowns. Anthony Medina ran for 636 yards and 9 touchdowns, and freshman Chase Moore, who emerged late in the season, raced for 489 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Mancos quarterback Breccen Morelli also gave opposing defenses fits as the junior’s ability to pull the ball down and run in instances when his receivers were not open allowed him to rush for 648 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Whether the Bluejays are able to move the ball on the ground against Merino figures to be key given that Mancos was held to a season-low 188 yards rushing and failed to score a rushing touchdown when the two teams squared off earlier this season.
“We figure if we hit somebody and knock them down and down and down again, they’re not going to get back up,” said Garcia, referring in part to his team’s physical rushing style. “They’re not going to want to play football.”
Can the Bluejays contain Merino’s passing attack?Given how dominant Mancos’ defense has been throughout the season, it is difficult to envision a circumstance in which Merino would be capable of scoring any more than one or two touchdowns.
In the event that Merino were to find holes in the Mancos defense however, it seems likely that those holes would be found in the team’s defensive secondary, which yielded 188 passing yards and two passing touchdowns to Del Norte on Sept. 21.
Whether Merino can match Del Norte’s success will depend largely on junior quarterback Cade Conger, who can move around the pocket and press the ball downfield.
Although Conger’s passing statistics are unavailable, the junior threw the ball 198 times last season while amassing 1378 passing yards and 11 passing touchdowns. Merino finished 8-3 last season and was eliminated by Soroco in the first round of the playoffs.
In order to contain Merino’s passing game, the Bluejays figure to rely heavily on a stout linebacker group led by Morelli, Garcia, and Colt Fury, and a speedy secondary anchored by sophomore Christian Cova and Medina.
As a team, the Bluejays defense forced 15 turnovers this season, which came in the form of 8 fumble recoveries and 7 interceptions. Disciplined team defense and heavy hitting were crucial for Mancos throughout its season and figure to be crucial again come game-time on Saturday.
“We just work as a team,” Fury said, after Mancos’s win over Dove Creek last week. “We just do what do all of the time.”
Can the Bluejays’ coaching staff come through again?Flying somewhat under the radar throughout Mancos’ historic season have been the contributions made by the team’s coaching staff, which includes head coach Josh Gardner and top assistant Alan Matthews.
An offensive tackle for the University of Cincinnati from 1999 until 2002, Gardner joined the Mancos coaching staff as an assistant before the 2015 season and took over as head coach two years later.
Matthews, who starred for Mancos as a player and served as the team’s head coach for two years beginning in 2009, was hired as an assistant prior to this year after coaching youth football in the area several years.
Both expert motivators who bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table, Gardner and Matthews have out coached many opposing teams this season as both have been known to recognize opposing team’s plays prior to the snap and shot instructions to their players.
Whether Gardner and Matthews can develop a game plan capable of downing Merino remains to be seen, but expect both coaches to have players well prepared, focused, and ready to play as a team heading into Saturday’s game.
In the event that Mancos plays to its full potential, fans can expect the second-seeded Bluejays to walk away with a victory and advance to the second round of Colorado’s 8-man football playoffs.