On the Erie High School football field during a late-November day that looked and felt more like spring, two of the best to have played their prep football careers in the BoCoPreps.com area went head to head in the Class 3A semifinals.
The Erie Tigers and running back Noah Roper, the BoCoPreps.com Offensive Player of the Year, were hosting the Longmont Trojans and Austin Hassler, the BoCoPreps.com Defensive Player of the Year. The game promised to be one of the most talent-laden area contests in ages but the matchup between Roper and Hassler was worth the price of admission on its own.
Erie won the game and went on to reach the state title game. Both Roper and Hassler, however, are likely to remember the challenge the other presented as vividly as any other game he has played.
"He's a very good linebacker and you need to respect that," Roper said of Hassler. "We'd seen linebackers who were really good but he was definitely better than what we'd seen. He was keying off me wherever I went. There was one play in particular when we faked it to me and he thought I had the ball, he met me in the hole and we hit each other really hard. We both just jumped up, tapped each other on the helmet and said, 'Nice play, man.'"
Roper finished the game with 255 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns, which was pretty much his regular outing throughout a season in which he led all of Colorado with 2,631 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns. Hassler ended up with 20 tackles, which raised his season total to 140 to go along with the 12 total turnovers he caused throughout the campaign.
As gritty and hard-hitting as a 5-foot-10, 190-pound linebacker comes, Hassler said taking on Roper was about as much fun as he had playing football this season. But after so many plays during which it was hard to tell who was hitting who harder, Hassler also admitted that facing Roper pushed him to greater heights and that he left Erie High School with a far greater respect for the Erie star than he had developed while tracking the running back's stats and news clippings.
"He's a great player," Hassler said. "We battled and it just kind of showed people what kind of player that I am, going one-on-one against the best running back in the state. I think that showed a lot of heart. I hit him pretty hard a few times but there were also a few times where he got me back. It was a really great game."
That game was one of Hassler's best, though shadowing one player wasn't his usual assignment. Normally, he ranged all over the field playing a sort of linebacker-safety hybrid position. For example, when the Trojans beat Fort Morgan in the regular-season finale to clinch a playoff berth, Hassler had 13 tackles, two interceptions, two fumbles forced and a fumble recovery.
Despite his accolades and statistical achievements, and leading the Trojans to the semifinals after they started the season with a 1-3 record, Hassler said he was most proud of staying true to his focus on making those around him better.
"It was nice to have people look up to me, to answer questions and to help other people get better," Hassler said. "I had a goal this season to be a better teammate and I think I did a good job of that. I had some pretty high goals on the field and I think I did a great job of achieving those as well. But first and foremost, I wanted to make sure I was helping my teammates get in a position to succeed and that I left a legacy as a senior."
Similarly, though Roper's 3,341 all-purpose yards now stand as the second-most during a single season in Colorado preps history, his focus remained on what his own effort could allow the team to accomplish. But there were also times when he simply had to put the team on his back, like when he rushed for 209 yards and four touchdowns including the overtime game-winner in the quarterfinals against Durango. Or in the state championship game when an injury to teammate Dion Lucero forced Roper to take over the quarterback position while already playing running back and safety despite shoulder and knee injuries of his own.
Since his freshman year, Roper knew he could turn out to be a special football player if he continued to work at it. And as a junior, he still hasn't come close to his ceiling as a player. But had the Tigers not won 11 games and had their first shot at a state championship in nearly a decade, all the awards and admiration wouldn't have been as welcome to Roper.
"This was honestly the best season I've ever had in my whole life," Roper said. "Doing everything we did as a team. I have an amazing team that has my back all the time and our coach tells us about an aspect of the game he calls, 'healthy selfish.' He tells us not to hold back and sometimes there are going to be moments when every player has to take on a little extra to make a play for the team. It wasn't just me and a lot of us had those special moments where we needed to do whatever it took to get a win for our teammates."
The Tigers' accomplishments also would not have been possible if not for 33-year-old head coach Chad Cooper, who has returned Erie football to the forefront of Colorado prep football for the first time since the Tigers reached the 2A state title in 2008. Cooper, who cut his teeth as an assistant under area legend Gary Davies at Broomfield High, is the BoCoPreps.com Coach of the Year.
In his third year as Erie's head coach, Cooper faced the challenge of restoring the program to prominence during a year in which the area's football programs were experiencing the highest level of depth and talent in recent memory. Playing in a Tri-Valley League that boasted a 27-3 record against non-league opponents made the Tigers' resurgent run an uphill battle from the start. But while each week was a big game, Cooper said their difficult schedule taught the Tigers how to prepare for big games and made them ready for the postseason once November finally arrived.
"Obviously, we have so many teams around us that have done this before like the Longmonts and Silver Creeks, who we had to go through," Cooper said. "Something that we talked about was to beat the teams we needed to beat within the St. Vrain. It was going to be hard enough to win in our area, so we couldn't look ahead to the playoffs. Our seniors wanted to leave a legacy and they absolutely, no question, did a great job. Hopefully, this is a year-in and year-out thing where we're competing with the traditional powers in the area."
With seven local teams making the postseason this past fall, the 2017 campaign will go down as one of the BoCoPreps.com area's best in history. And the efforts of Hassler and Roper were truly historic, as was the job Cooper did at Erie this season, and will be remembered for many years to come.