Tuesday, November 9, 2004
The Hayden Tigers won their league with a perfect record and rolled through their first playoff game.
The reward? Wray.
The Eagles are the state's top-ranked team in Class 1A and owners of a 10-0 record after beating four Class 2A teams this season. Two of those teams are still in the playoffs.
"We definitely are the underdog," Tigers coach Shawn Baumgartner said. "We are looking at it as a challenge. They don't really have any weaknesses."
Wray dropped down a classification this season and easily won the Class 1A North Central League. The Eagles were not challenged during the season, defeating their league opponents, including perennial power Akron, by a combined score of 250-27.
The Eagles have two 1,000-yard rushers in Nick Williams and Dex Cure and a quarterback, Joel Orr, who has thrown for more than 1,300 yards.
Much like Hayden, Wray is a quick team loaded with seniors who have been playing varsity since they were sophomores. Those seniors took their lumps in earlier seasons but responded in resounding fashion in their final go-round.
"I think balance is a strength of this team," Eagles coach Neal Rusher said. "We have a lot of three-year starters. They are very accustomed to what we want to do and how we want to do it. Our kids are very disciplined. They don't make many mistakes."
But they force their opponents to make plenty. Hayden didn't put up gaudy offensive numbers in its 41-21 win against Byers on Saturday. The defense and special teams made the big plays and provided the offense with good field position.
Baumgartner said Hayden may have underestimated Byers' talent, particularly on the offensive side of the football. On Saturday, Hayden will have to be disciplined, sharp and ready to play, or its season is over.
"We are really focusing on our passing game this week and trying to attack their defense," Baumgartner said. "Again, we will have to try to utilize our speed."
On defense, Baumgartner said, Hayden is approaching this game like it approached the game against Meeker, a powerful running team. The Tigers held the Cowboys, who are still in the playoffs, to less than 100 yards in a win.
"We've got to stop (Wray's) run," Baumgartner said. "Because of their size, we will have to play some games up front and do some things."
Hayden travels to Wray after losing a coin toss, but the close to six-hour drive to the Nebraska border may work to the Tigers' advantage. Northwest Colorado isn't exactly tranquil and balmy in mid-November, and weather forecasts are calling for 60-degree temperatures on the Eastern Plains this weekend.
Steamboat Springs encountered a similar problem last year in the playoffs when cold, snowy days forced the defense to step up and carry the pass-oriented team. The Sailors found a way to make it work. The Tigers will need to do the same, and if they do, they may find themselves upsetting the title favorite and hosting a semifinal game next weekend.
Kickoff between Hayden and Wray is at 1 p.m. Saturday in Wray.