PUEBLO — Things turned in a hurry on Erie's football season.
A team that once looked destined to get back to the Class 3A state title game — and perhaps have a chance to wipe off last year's stinging loss — is suddenly done after a frustrating 35-17 loss to Pueblo East at Dutch Clark Stadium.
Luc Andrada and Kain Medrano were dynamic as they'd been all season for the Eagles, while Erie's offense couldn't find sustained rhythm a game after losing star running back Noah Roper to injury.
Pueblo East led 28-3 before the Tigers scored their first touchdown of the game on a 13-yard hookup from Dion Lucero to Jaymeson Nelms with 4:24 left in the third quarter. Their final score came in the waning seconds on a short passing TD from Gavin Mendoza to Kaleb Fuhrmann.
It wasn't enough.
With no Roper, there were no excuses. Pueblo East — big, fast and seasoned — was just too much on this day.
"We just didn't do a good job of being consistent with all 11 guys," Erie coach Chad Cooper said. "Credit to them on defense, but we just didn't execute up front, outside, like we normally do with or without Noah."
The Eagles (11-2) celebrated with their fans following the win and will face Palmer Ridge in the title game at CSU-Pueblo next Saturday as they try for their fourth championship in five years.
Erie (12-1) was eliminated after another deep run in the postseason. The Tigers followed their loss to CU quarterback commit Ty Evans and the Bears in last year's 3A title game with 12 straight wins — 11 of which came by at least three scores — before finally bowing out.
In the program's three years under Cooper, the Tigers broke a three-year playoff drought in 2016, and then reached the championship game and semifinals round the next two years. He commended his seniors for the feat following the loss.
"Those were my closing words to them, think about where they left this program," Cooper said. "They broke a lot of walls. Erie has a lot of tradition, but I told them they kind of ramped the tradition up. So, the expectation from here on out because of this group are playoffs and making deep runs every single year. And we have them to thank for that."
Erie's defense continued its stifling play in the postseason in the early goings, holding strong against an offense featuring dynamic quarterback Andrada and UCLA-committed receiver Medrano. On East's first three drives, the Tigers had a pair of interceptions and a fourth-down stop inside the 1.
Then, a special teams snafu flipped things.
The Tigers didn't muster much after their defense stopped the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Medrano a few feet short of the goal line late in the first and had to punt. With his heels on the back of the endzone, Julian Custine corralled a high snap, bobbled it, and scrambled amid chaos. East defenders eventually knocked the ball loose and recovered at the 2, which led to an Andrada score with 11:34 left in the half.
It was the first points given up by the Tigers in the playoffs. They shut out Durango and Green Mountain in the first two rounds.
"It changed the momentum a little bit," Nelms said. "That was a big game-changer. We did our absolute best, but we just came short."
Offensively, the Tigers struggled to find consistency. They couldn't convert a first down after Josh Bradford returned an interception inside the 30 in the opening quarter. They had to settle for a 36-yard field goal from Custine in the second to pull within 7-3. East, though, converted a long fourth-down pass to Medrano on its next drive and went on to architect two more scores by half to make it 21-3.
"We came short of what we were expecting," Nelms, a senior, said afterward. "But from what we've been creating from my sophomore year to now, it's only been uphill."
Brent W. New: firstname.lastname@example.org and @brentwnew
Pueblo East 35, Erie 17
At Dutch Clark StadiumErie (12-1) 0 3 7 7 — 17
No scoring in the first quarter.
Pueblo East — Luc Andrada 7 run (Thomas Wagner kick). Erie — Julian Custine 37 field goal. Pueblo East — Noah Rivera 11 run (Wagner kick). Pueblo East — Andrada 4 run (Wagner kick).
Pueblo East — Kain Medrano 3 pass from Andrada (Wagner kick). Erie — Jaymeson Nelms 13 pass from Dion Lucero (Custine kick).
Pueblo East — Patrick Gonzales 3 run (Wagner kick). Erie — Kaleb Fuhrmann 9 pass from Gavin Mendoza (Custine kick).
RUSHING — Erie: Gardner 12-44, Lucero 6-12, Mendoza 6-8, Veve 2-7, Vera 1-3. Pueblo East: Andrada 16-122, Gonzales 16-57, Rivera 13-45, Medrano 2-22, London Jr. 1-16.
PASSING — Erie: Lucero 9-17-1-99, Mendoza 4-10-1-21. Pueblo East: Andrada 18-33-1-239.
RECEIVING — Erie: Fuhrmann 7-83, Khanna 3-15, Nelms 1-13, Lucero 1-8. Pueblo East: Medrano 7-105, London Jr. 4-37, Bowman 3-75, Padula 3-16, Harding 1-6.