Hayden When a holding penalty stalled a Tigers' drive at the 14-yard line in the fourth quarter, Paonia Eagles coach Jeremy McCormick knew the key to winning was keeping the Hayden offense off the field.
"The way the game was going, there was no way we could let (senior Keenan) Bruchez or that offense back on the field," McCormick said. "He's a great player, and we had our hands full trying to stop him."
Bruchez finished the game with 139 yards rushing and 96 yards passing.
But when the Tigers' final drive fell short, the Eagles proved they would do anything to keep him off the field.
Paonia put together an 18-play, 86-yard drive that came to an end when Paonia quarterback CJ Cannell completed a 25-yard pass to receiver Matthew Simpson to give Paonia a 29-22 victory.
Hayden had a chance to stop the drive with just more than four minutes remaining in the game after forcing the Eagles into a fourth-and-15. But Paonia gambled with a fake punt, and it paid off.
"It wasn't much of a gamble," McCormick said after the game. "If we gave them the ball back, I think the game would have been over."
When punter Rick Wilson hit Brendon Marek for a first down, it electrified the visiting sideline and put a damper on the Tigers' homecoming celebration.
After the game, Hayden back Coy Letlow had trouble finding the words to describe how disappointing the loss was.
"They made a couple of big plays on us," Letlow said. "We had our chances, but this wasn't our night. We're just disappointed that we lost the game."
But the Tigers gave the hometown fans plenty to celebrate early in the game.
The Tigers scored first when Tyson Letlow intercepted a Cannell pass on Paonia's second offensive series and returned it for a touchdown. Hayden missed the extra point.
The 6-0 lead didn't last long, however. Paonia's Tanner Ridgeway, who finished the game with 97 yards, quieted the home team a few plays later by scoring on an 11-yard touchdown run. Paonia kicked the extra point and took a 7-6 lead.
In the second quarter, Hayden lost another chance to go up when Brandon Ford fumbled the ball on the 3-yard line. But the Tigers increased the defensive pressure and forced a bad Paonia snap. Cannell was forced to kick the ball out of the back of the end zone, resulting in a safety. The Tigers also cashed in the team's next drive, when Coy Letlow, who had 63 yards in the game, including a 48-yard run in the second quarter, scored on a 5-yard rush, giving Hayden a 15-7 lead at the half.
But the lead didn't last long.
On the Tigers' first offensive series in the second half, Cannell intercepted a Bruchez pass and returned it for a touchdown. The Eagles went for two and failed, making the score 15-13. Bruchez put Hayden up 22-13 later in the quarter on a 5-yard touchdown pass.
Ridgeway set up the Eagles fourth quarter heroics by netting another touchdown and a 2-point conversion to make the score 22-21 late in the third quarter.
-- To reach John F. Russell, call 871-4209 or e-mail email@example.com