LONGMONT -- Few expected the Silver Creek football team to be a state title contender once again this fall after key graduation losses throughout the lineup of last year's 3A runner-up squad.
Now the Raptors are just one victory away from a return trip to the championship game.
SCHS rallied in the second half with 24 unanswered points to top Pueblo Central 27-12 in the Class 3A state quarterfinals. The victory earned the 10th-seeded Raptors a state semifinal road matchup against No. 6 Conifer next week.
So did the Raptors themselves believe they'd be back in this position when the year began with so many new faces in the lineup?
"We hoped so," said junior tailback Josh Quiroz, who rushed for just 6 yards last year but has 1,102 this season after Saturday's 150-yard, two-touchdown performance. "We're going to keep working at it. We really built off the team from last year."
For a half Saturday, the state semifinals seemed like wishful thinking for the Raptors (10-2).
No. 15 Pueblo Central (8-4) dominated with a pair of long touchdown drives -- one that lasted 12 plays and chewed 5 minutes, 48 seconds off the clock and another that went 10 plays in 4:44. Ten of those 22 plays went for first downs as the Wildcats took a 12-3 advantage into halftime.
But the Raptors, who entered the game allowing just 12.3 points per game, talked at halftime about shutting out the Wildcats in the second half. And the coaching staff moved defensive tackle Levi Cecil to the weak side to help close up the running lanes of Central tailback Nikko Valdez.
The strategy and pep talks worked.
Silver Creek held Pueblo Central to just 96 yards in the second half and intercepted Wildcat quarterback Zach Andrews three times.
Collin Gibbs, Anthony Emberley and Ross Fitzgerald all came up with interceptions. Fitzgerald's was his seventh of the season and iced the game, while Emberley's came inside the SCHS 10-yard line to preserve a 20-12 lead when it looked like Pueblo Central might finally take back some of the momentum with another long drive.
Emberley, who was tasked with covering PCHS leading receiver Damien Ruybal all day, offered praise all around for the defense, from the line to linebackers to defensive backs.
"Our first half we had a couple of letdowns," Emberley said. "Pueblo Central, they're a really good team.
"Everybody played a great game. It was just a real team effort."
Silver Creek forced Pueblo Central to go three plays and out on its first two drives of the second half, and capitalized on prime field position each time. Zane Lindsey scored on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Ben Sjobakken to cut the PCHS lead to 12-10, and then Ryan Charles hit a 39-yard field goal for a 13-12 lead before Gibbs' interception set up Quiroz's first touchdown.
"We made too many mistakes as a team (in the second half)," said Valdez, who finished with 93 yards and a touchdown after rushing for 62 in the first half.
Charles' talents proved just as key in the second half as those of the defense. Aside from hitting the go-ahead field goal, he also boomed three kickoffs in a row into the end zone for touchbacks to force Pueblo Central to start from its own 20. Charles also made a 37-yard field goal in the first half and had a 45-yard attempt blocked.
"He's definitely a weapon to have as you get deeper into this thing," Silver Creek coach Mike Apodaca said.
Lindsey caught six passes for 97 yards for SCHS.
But on a day when the passing game was slow to get going, it was Quiroz who led the Raptors on offense -- scoring on runs of 33 and 4 yards, the second coming with 2:27 to go in the game to make it 27-12 and cap a 13-play drive set up by Emberley's interception.
"It feels amazing," Quiroz said. "The line opened up the holes really well."
Follow Josh on Twitter: @JoshLindenstein
SILVER CREEK 27, PUEBLO CENTRAL 12
At Everly-Montgomery Field
Pueblo Central (8-4) 6 6 0 0 -- 12
Silver Creek (10-2) 3 0 17 7 -- 27
Silver Creek -- Ryan Charles 37 field goal.
Pueblo Central -- Zach Andrews 18 run (kick failed).
Pueblo Central -- Nikko Valdez 2 run (pass failed).
Silver Creek -- Zane Lindsey 7 pass from Ben Sjobakken (Charles kick).
Silver Creek -- Charles 39 field goal.
Silver Creek -- Josh Quirox 33 run (Charles kick).
Silver Creek -- Quiroz 4 run (Charles kick).
First downs 15 16
Rushes-yards 32-143 35-145
Passing yards 131 170
Comp-Att-Int 11-21-3 11-23-0
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 2-0
Penalties-Yards 9-75 9-60
RUSHING -- Pueblo Central: Valdez 19-93, Ruybal 2-(-1), Andrews 11-51; Silver Creek: Quiroz 25-150, Sjobakken 8-(-10), Whitmore 2-5.
PASSING (comp-att-int-yards) -- Pueblo Central: Andrews 11-20-3-131; Ranson 0-1-0-0; Silver Creek: Sjobakken 11-23-0-170.
RECEIVING -- Pueblo Central: Ruybal 4-85, Vidana 3-12, Kochenberger 2-23, Ranson 1-9, Valdez 1-2; Silver Creek: Lindsey 6-97, Fleming 2-26, Machmuller 2-27, Ricks 1-20.