Soroco sophomore Ian Palyo runs for a second-quarter touchdown against West Grand earlier this season. With Hayden moving to 8-man football for next sseason, the three Northwest Colorado rivals of Soroco, West Grand and Hayden again likely will be in the same league. And if year-out projections of mountain-town football teams carry much weight, they could be in for a three-way slugfest.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Soroco sophomore Ian Palyo runs for a second-quarter touchdown against West Grand earlier this season. With Hayden moving to 8-man football for next sseason, the three Northwest Colorado rivals of Soroco, West Grand and Hayden again likely will be in the same league. And if year-out projections of mountain-town football teams carry much weight, they could be in for a three-way slugfest.

New alignment could boost Hayden, Soroco, West Grand rivalries

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— The last time they met, scandal was dominating the national sports scene, war raged in Afghanistan and Ben Stiller was starring in a comedy that Roger Ebert didn’t like.

Sometimes it seems as if not a lot has changed since 2007, but it’s been a lifetime for a trio of regional football teams.

The Hayden High School squad made three trips to the state tournament. West Grand and Soroco dropped from 11-man football to 8-man football and, relatively speaking, thrived there.

There’s no word on what Stiller has in the works, but the next football season could feel like old times. With Hayden’s looming drop to 8-man football — the Tigers will take the step for next season, following Soroco’s 2008 move and West Grand’s 2010 dip — the three Northwest Colorado rivals again likely will be in the same league. And if year-out projections of mountain-town football teams carry much weight, they could be in for a three-way slugfest.

“It will be pretty exciting,” Soroco coach David Bruner said.

That last year, 2007, before the Rams slipped down to 8-man, was a good one among the teams. Soroco was in the midst of an extended slump, finishing 0-7 against varsity competition, but played its only relatively close game against the Tigers.

West Grand, meanwhile, pounded Soroco, and outlasted Hayden, handing that state-semifinal-bound Tigers squad one of just two regular season losses.

Hayden got its revenge in the ensuing two years, rolling the Mustangs, 47-12 and 35-7.

Next year, the trio could be on track for a battle royal.

All three will be coming off first-game exits from postseason play, but all three pieced together strong seasons. West Grand won the Central Division of the North League, running undefeated through that conference and picking up an October win against the Rams. That was a rare blip for Soroco, a team that was second in the league and 6-2 overall.

Hayden, meanwhile, finished second in the Class 1A Western Slope League, losing only to top-ranked Hotchkiss.

Optimism for a thrilling fall 2012 is as much about what will be as it is what was.

West Grand loses senior Casey Gore but returns plenty of playmakers. Soroco will battle inexperience on the offensive and defensive lines, but will certainly have the skill-position playmakers to stay in games. Quarterback Nic Paxton will return for his senior season after gaining more than 2,000 yards in total offense and scoring 29 touchdowns as a junior. Leading receivers Matt Regan and AJ Anderson will be back, as will top tailback Ian Palyo.

“The boys weren’t ready for football to be over this year and they’re already excited about next year,” Bruner said. “Our key next year will be getting those offensive and defensive linemen. We have some younger guys that will have to step into those roles.”

Hayden also will be loaded. While the Tigers won’t have a moment of 8-man experience, they will be powered by a class of 17 seniors that in 2011 accounted for many of the team’s big plays. Quarterback Mark Doolin scored 20 touchdowns and threw for 1,109 yards. Ryan Domson, a running back, gained nearly 700 yards and scored nine times.

“We have a solid group of juniors who will be back next season, and that’s a great class to make this change with,” Hayden coach Shawn Baumgartner said.

Just how everything will be set up won’t be cast in stone until the end of this month, when administrators from across the state meet with the Colorado High School Activities Association to finalize leagues and divisions. Preliminary lists, however, indicate the Tigers, Rams and Mustangs will be cast together with Rangely, which will be playing its first season of 8-man, and Vail Christian, which went 5-4 this season.

“It should make for a lot better competition week in and week out,” Bruner said.

The top four teams from that league would match up against the top four teams from the division’s other league. The winner of that cross-divisional game will get placed in a postseason bracket.

The good news for whichever squads might make it that far is that the league on the other side of the division isn’t likely to be filled with Eastern Plains powerhouses.

Those corn-fed teams have wrecked West Grand and Soroco in the past two seasons, but next year, the matchup might come against a league with less dominate teams.

That change could make a playoff run much more attainable, but one doesn’t have to look all the way to November 2012 to find something to get excited about. For the first time since 2007, Soroco, Hayden and West Grand will clash in football, and the games should be a blast.

“It will be fun to be back against those guys,” Baumgartner said. “It will be fun to renew those rivalries. That creates a fun atmosphere, and that’s what Friday nights are all about.”

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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