The Durango High School football team set out Saturday to do something no team in the history of the school had done before. To get it done, a usually explosive offensive team took on the defensive identity of its head coach.
Behind three interceptions and four consecutive fourth-quarter defensive stops, the No. 3 Durango Demons denied the No. 1 Roosevelt Rough Riders to win 21-14 in the Colorado High School Activities Association Class 3A state football championship on Saturday at the Colorado State University-Pueblo Neta and Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl Stadium.
“I love every single one of these boys, and to do this our senior year with guys we have been playing with since third grade, it means everything to me,” said DHS senior quarterback Jordan Woolverton. “It took a lot of heart. Roosevelt is a great team and played their hearts out. It took everything we had to pull out this game, and we gave everything. To be able to get that championship for Durango that we’ve always wanted, it’s incredible. It’s a special community that has had full support behind us. For us to get it done for them, it’s special.”
With two touchdown receptions of 23 and 67 yards as well as an interception with Roosevelt facing third-and-goal from the Durango 6-yard line late in the game, DHS senior Gage Mestas was named the player of the game.
“So much excitement. My body is tingling. I couldn’t be more blessed to be in this position,” Mestas said. “This is for the Durango community, the program. We have so much love for our town.”
It is Durango’s first state championship since 1954, when it tied Lamar 7-7 in the Class A championship. There were no overtime rules in that era, so the game ended in a tie with the teams declared co-champions. DHS had been 0-3-1 in title games going into Saturday with its last trip to the state championship having come in 1988.
No co-champions in 2020. Only Durango’s name on the trophy.
Woolverton finished the game 8-of-11 passing for 145 yards, the two touchdowns to Mestas and one interception.
Mestas finished with 105 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
“I was talking to Gage all week, and I could tell he wanted it more than anyone else on the team, and we all wanted it bad,” Woolverton said. “I am so proud of him to get that game MVP because he was huge and he deserved it.”
DHS was held to 78 yards rushing a week after it went for 360 yards in the semifinals in a 33-14 win against Holy Family. And 55 of those yards came on a Ben Finneseth touchdown run late in the second quarter that tied the game.
Aside from the three interceptions, Roosevelt quarterback Brig Hartson played a strong game for the Rough Riders. He finished 14-of-23 for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
Roosevelt was able to run for 100 yards against the Durango defense, as it routinely converted on third- and fourth-and-short.
But when it mattered, most Durango’s defense was able to get stops for its defensive-minded head coach David Vogt, who won his first state title in eight seasons in charge of the Demons.
“They scored on two blown assignments. To win the game, we had to go back to the basics and make sure everybody does their job. We came together and did that,” Vogt said. “Good teams are able to make big defensive stands, and that’s what we did.”
Durango’s defense shut out Roosevelt in the second half after the teams went into halftime tied 14-14 with three combined touchdowns scored in 1 minute, 56 seconds of play late in the second quarter.
Woolverton, linebacker Demetrius Trujillo and Mestas all had second-half interceptions to give the Durango defense 19 interceptions in eight games in the shortened 2020 season that played through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Durango took a 21-14 lead with 5:14 to go in the third quarter on a 67-yard touchdown pass from Woolverton to Mestas, best friends since third grade when the two decimated defenses in their youth playing days to go 40-1 from third to sixth grade, while they went undefeated in two years at Miller Middle School before becoming Demons.
“All seams, a wonderful pass on a laser and we were able to execute. That was an incredible throw,” Mestas said.
Facing third-and-10 from their own 33, Durango had called a running play. But with full trust in Woolverton’s mastery of the offense, he checked into a passing play with every player doing deep. With Mestas lined up in the left slot, Woolverton delivered a perfect pass deep down the seam. Mestas hauled it in and ran the rest of the way for the game-winning score.
“What a gutsy play from (Woolverton) to take that shot,” Vogt said. “That’s what we expect from him. He’s that type of player, and for us to win it was going to take those type of plays. I am so glad he did it.”
The winning touchdown came three plays after Woolverton’s interception of Hartson. Woolverton went in the air and made an acrobatic catch and was able to get a foot down inbounds for the game’s first turnover.
“Secure the catch and see where you are in the air,” Woolverton said. “I remember getting the catch and getting my right foot in. I was so focused because we needed that momentum shifter.”
Halfway into the fourth quarter, Durango clung to its 21-14 lead with Roosevelt methodically marching down the field with short passes and runs up the middle behind a strong offensive line. Hartson was able to throw a 39-yard pass to Keaton Kaiser down to the Durango 3-yard line. Mestas made a great play to recover and tried to knock the ball away with his right arm. But Kaiser was able to wrap two hands around the ball and fight it away from Mestas to make it first-and-goal.
Hartson would fumble twice in a row to move the ball back to the Durango 6-yard line to force third-and-goal. Hartson would roll left and waited for a receiver to break open in the end zone. He would fire a pass that Mestas leaped in the air to grab with his left hand to give Durango back the ball.
“I saw one receiver below me and one above me. I just thought I would jump as high as I could to catch this ball,” Mestas said. “I saw one receiver behind me and one in front of me. The quarterback threw the ball a little lower than expected and I was able to come down with it. I didn’t even know I caught it, to be honest. I came down with it still in my hand, and I was clenching it as hard as I could.
“We were all so gassed. It was the hardest fourth quarter of my life, and I will remember that sweat dripping down my face the rest of my life.”
The Demons couldn’t gain a yard on its next offensive drive with a chance to gain a couple of first down and run out the clock. Woolverton would hit a 40-yard punt that was not returnable, and Roosevelt had a chance again to tie or take the lead with 3:38 to play.
Content to let the clock run, Roosevelt did not hurry and quickly gained a first down. But a key illegal formation penalty would create a second-and-13 from the Durango 36-yard line. Hartson ran for five yards on third down to make it third-and-8. Durango’s top pass rusher, Kyler Reimers, was forced to go to the sideline because of blood on a key passing down. But Durango’s other leading pass rusher, Ford Pitts, fought through a hold and was able to knock down Hartson on the third-down pass to force an incompletion. With less than a minute to play, Durango needed only one more stop to win the title.
Hartson fired a perfect pass on fourth down to an open receiver. But Jaden Herrera, who had one catch in the game, had the ball go through his hands and off his shoulder pads and fall to the turf. Durango celebrated on its sideline, as they knew they were two kneel downs away from being handed the state championship trophy.
“So excited when that ball hits the ground,” Vogt said. “All that hard work this group has done with the boot camps, lifting, all the practices, it’s just a blessing and a relief when it ends with a win. I’ve never been so happy. All year, we had to be ready for anything. Our big guys had to make big plays, and they did. This team is a family. We’ve had teams that have been close, but this team truly is a family. I know what the pedigree is now to win a championship. You need that family bond.”
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Durango got another massive interception from Trujillo with Roosevelt trying to convert on fourth-and-6. Hartson rolled left with Durango in a zone defense. Trujillo flowed with the play and had the ball come straight to him.
“It took heart and intensity every single play for us to get this win,” Trujillo said. “We were all gassed in that fourth quarter. But on that play I made my drop and saw the quarterback roll out and knew it was a perfect opportunity for me with a receiver behind me. He threw it, I moved to that angle and it felt like he threw it right to me.”
Vogt called Trujillo’s interception one of the most special plays of his coaching career.
“Demetrius is a special kid and I have a special relationship with him. We’ve gone through some hard times,” Vogt said. “For him to come through and make that play, it’s what coaching is all about. For him to get through this season and come up big, it was incredible.”
The first quarter was dominated by Durango. After a quick defensive stop, the Demons would go 70 yards in eight plays on their opening drive of the game and scored on a 23-yard pass from Woolverton to Mestas on a fourth-down play to give the Demons an early 7-0 lead.
“It was a great playcall,” Mestas said. “We saw their safeties were two inside and we took the corner route. It was a great play call from coach (Ryan) Woolverton.”
Roosevelt would answer back in the second quarter with a 12-play, 86-yard drive that ended with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Hartson to Tucker Peterson. That tied the game at 7-7 with 3:20 to play in the first half.
Roosevelt’s Evan Cline would recover an onside kick on the Durango 31-yard line after its big touchdown score. The Rough Riders kicked to an open space without a Durango return man anywhere in the area.
After three big defensive stops by Durango, Roosevelt would make the most of its big onside kick with a 33-yard TD pass on a well-executed screen from Hartson to Keegan Sterkel. Suddenly, Roosevelt had a 14-7 lead with 1:35 to go in the half.
Roosevelt would hit a squib kick to Durango that was picked up by Durango junior Jordan Stanley, who exploded out to the Demons’ own 45-yard line.
On Durango’s first play, Ben Finneseth burst through the line of scrimmage and got to the left sideline and broke a shoestring tackle to score on a 55-yard run. That put the game level again at 14-14.
“We were a bit stunned and had been playing too fast and overly aggressive. We needed to slow down and think,” Finneseth said of the plays that led to DHS going down 14-7. “When we got the ball back, the linemen made a big hole for me. I always tell them to block everyone except three guys and I can make three guys miss. That’s what they did, and I attacked from there. To get the tie at halftime, we hadn’t had a game still tied at halftime and we are used to going in winning by a lot. But we knew we had to finish the game, couldn’t quit and had to drive even harder.”
The win ended a season full of adversity for the Demons. The COVID-19 pandemic ended the high school sports season early during the 2019-20 school year and left fall sports in doubt. The season was originally postponed until the fall before pressure around the state forced Gov. Jared Polis and CHSAA to reconsider. Eventually, the state powers allowed football to start a six-game regular season with a shortened eight-team playoffs, down from the usually 16 teams that make it to the postseason.
DHS had its first game of the season against preseason No. 1 Pueblo South canceled because of COVID-19 on the eve of the season’s start. But DHS was able to go 5-0 through the regular season and was able to roll through Lutheran in the quarterfinals at home before the big win at Holy Family in the semifinals.
“I want to thank CHSAA, I want to thank Polis. It’s awesome,” Finneseth said. “Just to have the opportunity, I can’t believe we just did this. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”
Saturday’s game was a true test, and Roosevelt gave the Demons all they could handle. But, in the end, the toughness and grit of the Demons proved they were the best team in all of Class 3A in 2020.
And for an unforgettable senior class, the Demons finished as champions to earn legendary status in their home town for eternity.
“This is for all the future Durango teams,” Mestas said. “We want this to be the start. I just hope the future classes can escalate it from here and continue this roll. All of our coaches deserve this so much, and I know they will get Durango back here.”