Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer
Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer
One is more likely to hear Kendrick Lamar blasting over the loudspeakers during Erie’s football practices this week than, say, Aerosmith. Yet one would also be hard-pressed to find another team who is living on the edge like the Tigers have the past five weeks.
Again, and again, and again … Erie has had its feet to the flames late this 2017 season, and it’s been the ability to reverse fortunes and create the right headspace as to why the Tigers will be hosting a Class 3A semifinal game Saturday afternoon.
The past five contests for Erie have all come down to the fourth quarter — and to break it down further, three of those games have come down to a final drive whether rallying for a touchdown or making a stop on defense.
Head coach Chad Cooper and his staff have made some gutsy calls all along the way, and that has given the players the right mindset that they are trusted to control their own destiny.
“We got the opportunity to learn how to overcome stuff in the regular season, and sometimes if you’re forced to learn those things in the postseason, you come up short,” Tigers head coach Chad Cooper said, his team preparing for a local matchup against Longmont (1 p.m. at EHS). “The kids have done a great job of rallying and playing to the final whistle each week. It’s kids making plays.”
Running its record to 7-0, Erie stumbled for the first time at Roosevelt with a 22-20 loss — in which the Tigers had a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter wiped away by a holding penalty.
The next week, the Tigers were trailing Mead 35-28 and about to receive a kickoff with less than 3 minutes left in the game when a procedure call on the Mavericks put the coaches in a bind — get the ball at the 35-yard line and work or have MHS re-kick and give returner Noah Roper a chance to break off a huge play?
The staff opted for the latter, but the kickoff instead went short and bounced off an Erie player into the hands of the Mavericks. Mead went on to pad its lead and won 42-28.
A 40-24 win against Frederick was a little less stressful, though the Warriors had a 17-14 lead on EHS into the third quarter and it was just 28-17 entering the final frame.
All that is child’s play to the past two weekends of playoff football. Erie knocked off Pueblo East in the first round with a touchdown and a two-point conversion in the final minute, and last week the Tigers went on the road and dispatched a good Durango team with a stunning touchdown drive that again was capped off in the final minute of play.
In both instances, an adrenaline-infused defense came back out on the field and stopped their opponents from making things any crazier.
“It came down to everybody doing their job in the end, to trust everyone else that despite any adversity that we had through the game to just get there and make that final stand,” said junior Ian McDonald, who led the team last week with 12 total tackles after missing the Roosevelt and Mead games because of injury. “It’s hard to watch your assignment and make sure you don’t over-pursue. You just have to stay dialed in.
“The coaches have been great at just telling us to remember what we need to do and remember what we’ve done in practice.”
For all involved — players, staff, parents and fellow EHS students cheering their team faithfully — it’s been quite a ride. A ride they hope parlays into a trip to the 3A state title game, wherever that ends up to be.
The trust that has been built up through the journey, however it ends, is palpable.
“You can’t flip-flop having guts in my opinion. You have to show it all the time because if you don’t your kids will see through that and other teams will see through it,” Cooper said. “Always being aggressive — does it always work out? No. But having an aggressive mentality resonates with the entire team. Hopefully it doesn’t come down to making another tough call like that, but I have the confidence in the kids that they’ll go win the game for us.”
“The two-point conversion call against Pueblo, that just showed the coaches believe what we have going here,” senior Alex Mathis added. “You have to make plays to win a championship, and everybody believes in everybody else. It gets you going to know the coaches have that belief in you.”
This week, the Tigers (10-2) face a Longmont (9-3) team that Cooper said is likely the finest they’ve come up against this year. The rallies, the drama of coming through when all the chips are on the table — all of that has made Erie unified in its effort to reach its first championship game since 2008 (in 2A).
But Cooper made sure to reiterate to his squad that fine details accomplished earlier in the game can be huge in preventing them from needing to rally at game’s end.
“We’ve talked plenty about plays earlier on that we need to start making, and not turning the ball over is a big emphasis for us this week because Longmont has like 37 turnovers on the year for their defense,” Cooper said. “With them, if you get behind, it’s going to be much tougher to do what we’ve done.”