SANFORD – It could have been a league-title tilt. Instead, after their regular season finale was canceled, the CHSAA selection committee paired Sanford and Mancos with even more on the line – a spot in the state semifinals.
Through a seesaw battle in the San Luis Valley, the second-seeded Indians held off a furious Mancos rally in the fourth quarter, stopping the Bluejays on fourth down in the final minute to seal a 36-28 victory and ending Mancos’ season in the quarterfinals for the second consecutive season.
Sanford (6-0) set the tone for a physical contest on the game’s opening possession. The Indians took the kickoff and marched 60 yards, taking over seven minutes before junior quarterback Josh Holman bullied his way into the end zone for 6-0 lead.
After trading punts, Mancos (3-2) turned to standout junior tailback Chase Moore from their own 30-yard line. The speedster turned the corner around the left end, breaking free for a 70-yard score, his 15th rushing score of the season. After a two-point conversion, Mancos jumped in front, 8-6.
The Bluejays looked to build momentum, as senior defensive lineman Lot Martin forced a fumble from Holman, and Mancos took over in Sanford territory. However, just a couple of plays later, the Bluejays gave the football right back on a fumble of their own.
Sanford took the ball inside the Mancos 10-yard line before Mancos senior linebacker Colt Fury forced the Indians backward into a fourth-and-goal from the 14. Holman pulled out another bit of magic, as he found senior Ruben Chavez in the corner of the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Moments later, things went from bad to worse for the Jays. Moore fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and the Indians capitalized one play later with a Holman 40-yard touchdown. In the blink of an eye, Mancos went from up two points to down 22-8.
Showing the tenacity that has made them a powerhouse in the eight-man classification, Mancos could have folded under the major shift in fortunes, but instead battled back right before halftime. Senior Christian Cova picked off Holman near midfield, setting up sophomore quarterback Ayden Mathews with an opportunity to cut the deficit.
Mathews guided the Bluejays downfield on the ground and through the air, before Moore capped the drive with a 15-yard score to send the Bluejays to the intermission within one score, 22-16.
However, after the ensuing Mancos drive stalled, junior running back Kelton Gartrell of Sanford broke free for a 35-yard score and expanded the lead to 30-16 heading into the final quarter.
Mancos answered right back, with Moore capping a four-minute drive with a five-yard sweep to spring life into the blue-clad sideline.
The Jays went with an onside kick, but couldn’t quite claw the ball free from a scrum at midfield, and the Sanford faithful breathed a sigh of relief. That relief turned to ecstasy moments later, as Gartrell bounced off of a pair of Bluejays before taking off for a 50-yard score. Again, Mancos faced a 14-point hole.
Yet again, however, it was Moore who would take the visitors on his shoulders. After a big kickoff return set up the Mancos offense with good field position, Moore spearheaded a drive that churned inside the Sanford 30. With their season on the line, Moore took a direct snap on a fourth-and-nine from the 25, bursting through a large hole set up by the offensive line and into the end zone to shave the deficit to eight with just over six minutes remaining.
Turning to their defense, Mancos forced a Sanford punt, but were unable to manufacture the tying score, as the Jays lost the ball on a fumble for the fourth time in the game.
Just when it appeared Mancos might have seen their last chance, their defense came up with one more massive stop, picking up their fifth takeaway of the game on a Gartrell fumble, setting up the Mancos offense inside the Sanford 40 with just over 2 minutes to play.
A steady dose of Moore moved Mancos within sight of the goal line, even with every player in green knowing what was coming. On fourth-and-three from the Sanford 9-yard line, the whole stadium knew who would touch the ball.
The Bluejays needed three yards. The Indians allowed two. With that, the home sideline erupted, as the Indians secured a date with Merino in the state semifinals, turning Mancos away in heartbreaking fashion for the second consecutive year.
Mancos assistant coach Alan Mathews heaped praise on the Jays in the tough defeat. “I couldn’t be prouder of the boys today,” he said. “At the end of the day, both teams made some great plays; we just came up a little bit short.”
In a game that showcased two of the most prolific backs in the classification, Moore and Gartrell, the duo stuffed the stat sheets to combine for six touchdowns.
“These are two of the best players in the state,” said Mathews, “and we’re happy with the way our offensive line and quarterback were able to give (Chase) opportunities to show what he can do.”
Mancos wrapped up its season with a playoff berth for the sixth consecutive year, testament to their ability to reload each season.
“We’ve got a young football team,” said Mathews, “and so many of them stepped up today to make big plays. It makes it exciting to see how we’re going to do next season.”