At the end-of-year banquet following his first-ever season as a head football coach - a 2015 campaign in which Skyline won just two games for the third straight year - Mike Silva guaranteed it would mark the last in a lengthy streak of consecutive losing seasons for the Falcons.

It turned out to be a pivotal moment for Skyline football. But for Silva, his own declaration left him uneasy. Now he had added the burden of expectation to the uphill battle against his worst enemy: the perception that Skyline football could not be saved.

"Did you hear what I just said?" Silva asked his assistant coaches after the banquet, knowing just how many people believed that the Falcons football program was dead in the water.

It was easy to doubt that anyone could turn things around. Little that happened in the past decade gave much cause to expect a day when the Falcons would be a playoff team. It hadn't happened since 1999, which seemed to many like enough time in the past for something to become fairly permanent.

In 1999, John Elway led the Denver Broncos to a victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, Bill Clinton was president, Brandi Chastain scored her iconic World Cup Final game-winner in penalty kicks and SpongeBob SquarePants debuted on Nickelodeon. That's how long it's been.


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Now, Elway has long-since retired from playing and serves as executive vice president of football operations and general manager with the team for which he once played, Clinton almost became the nation's first first-husband and Spongebob is an icon. And the Skyline Falcons are headed to the Class 4A state playoffs to face Chatfield in the first round on Friday. It took Silva just three short years to take the Falcons from 2-8 to 8-2, which is miraculous considering the program had dug itself into a 16-63 hole over the eight seasons prior to his arrival.

Skyline High School quarterback Nate McGregor, center, is congratulated on a touchdown during a game against Niwot on Sept. 29. The Falcons finished the
Skyline High School quarterback Nate McGregor, center, is congratulated on a touchdown during a game against Niwot on Sept. 29. The Falcons finished the regulars season 8-2 and are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999. (Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer)

A lot has changed since the Falcons' last playoff appearance to their impending postseason reappearance. The key for Silva getting the Falcons to where they are now was getting people to believe what he believed.

"More than anything, it's just having a belief in the kids," Silva said. "You have to believe in them and give them a chance from there. That chance can just be a little love and a system that works when executed. Loving the kids and believing in them is a prerequisite for being on my coaching staff. I think we already had some great kids who were just waiting for that.

"I've been around long enough to know that if I went there and got kids to buy in, and kept them all at home in our community, we would win."

In the St. Vrain Valley School District, where open enrollment gives prospective student-athletes the option to choose which high schools they attend, battling perception is harder when there are so many options and most of them have been viewed as better for a long time. And though Silva had been head wrestling coach at Longmont-area rival Silver Creek for 15 years and was plenty tuned-in to the St. Vrain's prep sports environment, football is a different animal entirely. Still, as an alumnus of the Skyline High School Class of 1990, Silva couldn't resist the challenge.

A firm believer that players win games, Silva knew he'd need to make his players believers first. In that particular endeavor, he actually had the benefit of an unexpected head start.

Skyline senior Alex Ortiz suffered through a pair of 2-8 seasons his first two years with the team, but now is headed to the playoffs after the Falcons
Skyline senior Alex Ortiz suffered through a pair of 2-8 seasons his first two years with the team, but now is headed to the playoffs after the Falcons went 8-2 this year. (Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer)

Coming from an unfortunate situation at Niwot High in which his father and coach was involved in an in-school altercation and was fired from the school, junior running back Jeremy Hollingsworth came to Skyline with a game-changing talent and ready for something to believe in. He has since rushed for a state-leading 1,899 yards and a school-record 31 touchdowns, which is Colorado's most in a single regular season since Doherty's Zach Young had 31 in 2013.

Even after his team defeated the Falcons on Oct. 5, Monarch head coach Phil Bravo said Hollingsworth, Nate McGregor and Kyle West gave the Skyline offense a three-headed monster to be reckoned with. That game, a 52-42 loss for the Falcons, and a 56-55 loss to Windsor three weeks later, still stand out to Hollingsworth as examples of the Falcons' playoff readiness even though no one on the roster has experience playing in a postseason game.

Skyline’s Jeremy Hollingsworth leads the state with 1,899 rushing yards and 31 TDs.
Skyline's Jeremy Hollingsworth leads the state with 1,899 rushing yards and 31 TDs. (Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer)

"I think the biggest thing is that it's a lot more of a brotherhood here, playing for each other," Hollingsworth said. "That was something that wasn't as big when I was over there (at Niwot) and probably a reason why we weren't so successful. We're playing for each other and that's a big reason for our success."

But then again, when they're clicking as a unit, Hollingsworth thinks the Falcons are ready for anything. He's so convincing when he says it that it's difficult not to believe him.

Following up on their breakthrough 7-3 season last fall, which stood as the program's first winning season since 2000 but still didn't score high enough under the inaugural RPI format to qualify for the 16-team playoffs, is perhaps better evidence of their readiness. Senior linebacker Alex Ortiz has been through a pair of two-win seasons, last year's deflating snub and a thus-far triumphant 12th-grade year, and is as deeply rooted in the Falcons' rebuild as Silva himself.

"As a senior, it's been great so see the younger guys come through because so many of our best players aren't seniors," Ortiz said. "My freshman year, Skyline was known for the 2-8 teams. But you could just tell when Silva got here that things were going to change. We went 2-8 again my sophomore year but it definitely felt different. We improved so much and other teams were starting to expect the best from us.

"Our junior year was really devastating because the seniors that year, Nate Higgins and those guys, had really set the tone and it sucked for them not to make (the playoffs). But it still felt amazing to be the first Skyline team in a while to have a winning season and now going into the playoffs for the first time since 1999 is an even more amazing feeling."

To be fair, it's somewhat limiting to pigeon-hole Silva as simply a wrestling coach. Prior to taking the helm at Skyline, he also served as an assistant football coach for six seasons at Silver Creek and was a member of the staff during the Raptors' 3A state title run in 2012.

Despite having the largest enrollment of the St. Vrain Valley School District schools as of October of 2015, the Skyline football program has come to feel unappreciated in the district and in the Longmont community, regularly overshadowed by the programs at Longmont High, Silver Creek and Mead. The Falcons community's frustration stems not just from the football team's on-field struggles, but also from media coverage levels and the quality of the football program's facilities.

As for how much of that is reality and how much is perception, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It does, however, appear as though the Falcons could be getting at least some of what they're hoping for soon, according to St. Vrain Valley School District Athletics Director Rob Berry.

"Under the old bond measure, they got a baseball field, a utility field and a soccer field," Berry said. "Under the new bond, Skyline is getting its turn this summer. They'll go in and redo the locker rooms, some indoor facilities and some football and softball field-area stuff. I'm not sure the exact value of the renovations, but think it should be around a million dollars."

Berry took over as the district athletics director in 2004 and is getting the chance to see the Falcons take a field in the postseason for the first time. He was another who was quick to throw out Silva's name as the primary reason for making that a reality.

"When we hired Mike, you just got that great feeling in your chest, in your heart, that he was the right guy for the job," Berry said. "He had been in a successful program at Silver Creek and you just felt like he could do it. It has been a great year for athletics in the St. Vrain and we're excited about all our schools, but it's a really exciting time at Skyline right now. They must be flying sky-high over there."

It is indeed an exciting time at Skyline, where a Hispanic coach now leads the most popular athletic program at the district's most diverse school. Where fall once marked the ominous beginning of an annual struggle, it now inspires rally cries of "Wings Up" and "FeaRed" in high school football stands and on social media.

Silva and the Falcons have broke through to the postseason. There is still, however, plenty more to do before Skyline can achieve the consistency it ultimately desires and no one can predict what will happen in future seasons.

The Falcons do appear to be certain about one thing: they have found the man to lead them through whatever comes next.

"It's been great to see people recognize Skyline," Silva said. "What's even better is that I just watched our seventh-graders in the championship and our ninth-grade team went undefeated. We're building towards something where we can be a good football team every year and our kids can have a good experience every season.

"I think we're doing it."

Brad Cochi: cochib@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BradCochi