Soroco football vs. varsity opponents
* First season of 8-man football
Steamboat Springs The story was in the tears.
The Soroco High School football team lost for the first and last time Friday night, the dreams of an undefeated regular season ground into the cold dirt by an aggressive and physical group of kids from Norwood.
"This hurts," senior quarterback Cody Miles said.
It did hurt. After exchanging handshakes with the Mavericks and receiving words from the Soroco coaches, Miles quietly took a seat on a sideline bench and dropped his head to his hands.
There were four seniors on the 2009 Soroco football team, and all but Matt Watwood - hobbled and on crutches because of a bad ankle - played big roles in Friday night's game.
As Miles sulked, Gage Achtner and Alex Estes exchanged tearful hugs with friends and family.
It hurt them all, and even as a dream was denied, that was the best news the Rams could get.
"I see how much this hurts you guys," Soroco coach David Bruner hollered at midfield post-game, his team gathered around him as he choked back his own emotion. "I remember what it was like when we lost four years ago. No one was crying after a game then. No one cared that much."
A decade to forget
The loss marked the end of one of the best seasons in the history of football at Soroco. The Rams, 7-1, came within 11 minutes of their first undefeated season in 41 years.
There was a mighty canyon of despair between those banner seasons.
Soroco's struggles have been particularly acute the past decade.
After fielding just 17 players in 1999, the team opted to forgo a varsity squad and compete only against junior varsity competition.
The Rams returned to a full varsity team in 2002. They were assigned to the Western Slope League and annually butted heads with cross-county rival Hayden and a half-dozen other area teams.
There were several bright spots in the period.
The 2003 team earned the school's first trip to the playoffs in 12 years. It was flushed in the first round by two-time defending state champions, Akron, but it seemed like progress.
Then the 2005 team went 5-4 with three Western Slope wins. Although it lost the last game of the season, 38-14, at Hayden, Soroco had entered that game with another chance at the playoffs.
Outside those two campaigns, however, it was rough going. Soroco won just one league game in 2004 and went winless in the Western Slope in 2006 and 2007, winning only one varsity game in that two-year stretch.
Those losses left administrators again contemplating a drop down, this time to 8-man competition instead of junior varsity.
One massive problem loomed. Though attendance numbers at Soroco High School were in decline, they weren't falling fast enough, and the Rams weren't technically eligible to play 8-man football.
"A team can still drop down," Colorado State High School Activities Association Commissioner Bill Reader said, "but they have to have had a winning percentage under 0.20 for four years to be eligible for the postseason."
Soroco's winning percentage for the four seasons preceding its drop to 8-man football was 0.207, largely thanks to the 2005 team's playoff push, the only season in the span in which the Rams won more than two varsity games.
That left the school with tough choices. It could continue to play 11-man football against long odds or drop down to 8-man, suffer through two years without a chance at the postseason and hope the enrollment numbers dipped low enough to let the Rams in for 2010.
All the right moves
So when Soroco closed out its season in 2007 with a 49-12 loss to a three-win Rangely team, there weren't many heartbroken players.
Injuries exacerbated the Rams' troubles in 2006 and 2007, and there was clearly talent in the pipeline.
Some of that talent considered transferring for a chance at playoff glory, including Miles and Estes, who combined to score all of the team's touchdowns in Friday night's game.
"I thought about it, but I'm glad I didn't do anything like that," Miles said after the loss.
It was the kind of game that could make a dedicated player weep.
Norwood won thanks to a hard-nosed, relentless running game. The Mavericks' Jordan Nielson rumbled for 300 yards, almost all of it seemingly coming after first contact. He repeatedly plowed through tacklers and always fell forward for an extra couple of yards.
He helped his team bounce back from a fourth-quarter deficit and then power on for a 41-20 victory.
"That was just an awful good team," Bruner said afterward, wearily.
Despite the loss, had Soroco been playoff eligible, the team would have the chance to bounce back next weekend and would almost surely be a lock for the playoffs.
As it is, the players will soon check in their equipment and box up their cleats.
Turns out, what the team will be missing wasn't what any of the tears were about.
"We made the right decision," Achtner said. "I wouldn't have it any other way at this point. Playing 8-man football has been great."
"We really wanted that one," Miles said. "But that's all right. I wouldn't do any of this any differently."