HIGHLANDS RANCH — Roughly one year ago, a large contingent from the Fairview football team organized a caravan to take a trip to the Class 5A state championship game.
The Knights were only spectators, having been eliminated in the first round of the tournament to complete a 5-5 campaign. They watched Valor Christian win its fourth consecutive state title but, perhaps more importantly, the Fairview contingent never saw anything on the turf at Sports Authority Field that made them think a return visit in a more formal capacity was beyond reach in 2013.
The dream began that day. It became reality on Saturday, as the Knights used a dominant second-half performance to record a 38-28 win against ThunderRidge in the Class 5A semifinals.
Indeed, Fairview will be returning to Sports Authority Field at Mile High, this time as an undefeated, top-seeded squad looking to end the Valor dynasty. Kickoff between the top two teams in 5A will be on Saturday, Nov. 30 at 2:30 p.m.
Fairview (12-0) will make its first appearance in the title game since 2002 while taking aim at the program’s first state title since 1987.
“Obviously it feels awesome,” head coach Tom McCartney said. “We took a lot of guys to the state championship game last year and started dreaming there saying, ‘Hey, we think we can get here, but it’s going to take some work.’
“We’re very excited. We’ve worked hard and found a way to win, and we get to move on.”
After trading scores throughout the first half, it was the Fairview defense that turned the tide after the break.
The contest was tied 21-21 going into the third quarter when the Knights took the second half kickoff and recaptured the lead on a 21-yard field goal from Jonathan Swartzwelter. As had been the case throughout the game, ThunderRidge immediately answered, driving down the field to set up a third down at the Fairview 7-yard line.
But junior defensive back Johnny Feauto reversed the momentum in the blink of an eye, intercepting a Brody Westmoreland pass two yards into the end zone and returning it to the 25. From there it was all Fairview, while ThunderRidge slowly unraveled. Moments later the Grizzlies were flagged for two separate 15-yard personal fouls in one post-play sequence, leading to Owen Harris’ second 1-yard touchdown run of the game.
Once bitten, ThunderRidge couldn’t shake off the turnover bug. The Grizzlies’ next possession ended with a fumble recovery by Fairview senior Connor Spencer, and Feauto nabbed another interception when the Grizzlies threw up a desperation heave after a botched snap on a field goal attempt.
All told, the Knights’ defense produced four turnovers in the second half, while the offense turned those takeaways into 14 points. Fairview’s defense, however, was not the only unit on the Knights’ squad that honed its game after the break. After allowing quarterback Anders Hill to get sacked five times in the first half, Hill wasn’t sacked once over the final two quarters.
Fairview’s defense surrendered just one big play, with ThunderRidge running back Steve Ray breaking loose for an 80-yard touchdown in the first quarter, but the Knights held Ray to just 37 yards on his other 12 carries.
“This is nothing new we’ve experienced. We just had to stay focused,” said junior linebacker Luke Miller, who recorded an interception in the fourth quarter. “Our big message was that ‘A team that won’t be beat, can’t be beat.’ We kept saying that over and over. That’s the mentality we had during the game. This is a special group and we weren’t going to settle for a loss.”
Hill turned in another performance that has been typical of his magical senior season, completing 23 of 36 passes for 318 yards while throwing a pair of touchdowns without an interception. Both of Hill’s touchdowns went to Cameron Frazier, who turned in a big game (10 catches, 152 yards) with ThunderRidge devoting double-coverage to Fairview all-state receiver Sam Martin for much of the contest.
Hill increased his season passing yards total to 3,639, good for fourth on the state’s all-time single-season list and trailing No. 3 Austin Apodaca, the former Silver Creek quarterback now at Washington State, by 214 yards.
“I don’t think we really made much of an adjustment, our guys just decided they wanted to fight and they were going to protect no matter what happened,” Hill said. “I have all the respect in the world for our linemen and they played great today.”
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Fairview 38, ThunderRidge 28
At Shea Stadium
Fairview (12-0) 14 7 3 14 — 38
ThunderRidge (11-2) 7 14 0 7 — 28
Fairview — Cameron Frazier 4 pass from Anders Hill (Jonathan Swartzwelter kick).
ThunderRidge — Steve Ray 80 run (Matt Hopper kick).
Fairview — Frazier 4 run (Swartzwelter kick).
ThunderRidge — Ray 4 run (Hopper kick).
Fairview — Owen Harris 1 run (Swartzwelter kick).
ThunderRidge — Matt Stanley 11 run (Hopper kick).
Fairview — Swartzwelter 21 field goal.
Fairview — Harris 1 run (Swartzwelter kick).
Fairview — Frazier 11 pass from Hill (Swartzwelter kick).
ThunderRidge — Hopper 20 pass from Westmoreland (Hopper kick).
RUSHING — Fairview: Jason Harvey 13-39, Sam Martin 4-26, Cameron Frazier 5-7, Daniel Hoskins 1-2, Owen Harris 3-2, Anders Hill 7-(-31); ThunderRidge: Steve Ray 13-117, Brody Westmoreland 10-44, Kevin Knox 7-38, Matt Stanley 9-31, Jon Jones 2-21.
PASSING (comp-att-int-yards) — Fairview: Hill 23-36-0-318, Johnny Feauto 1-1-0-39; ThunderRidge: Westmoreland 17-31-2-305.
RECEIVING — Fairview: Frazier 10-152, Martin 7-93, Steve D’Epagnier 3-36, Hill 1-39, Harris 1-24, Savoy Smith 2-13; ThunderRidge: Mark Hopper 9-169, Mark Ciurczak 3-72, Tristan Powers 2-45, Jones 1-12, Stanley 1-6, Ray 1-1.