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Football: Boulder’s magical run reaches the state championship game

Panthers going back to the football finals for the first time since 1992

  • Boulder's Declan Culberson makes room pushing back the Angel's Benjamin Kirk during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Denver East's Isaiah Davis is stopped by Boulder's Drake Arthur during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Drake Arthur tries to get a hold of Denver East's Isaiah Davis during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Boulder's Ben Mulenda pushes Denver East's Dylan Wigglesworth to the ground during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Boulder's Declan Culberson gets a first down during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer

    Boulder's Omar Molina, left, and Ben Mulenda, stop Denver East's Isaiah Davis during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Boulder's Parker Patchett tries to get Denver East's Isaiah Davis during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Boulder's Declan Culberson makes room in the defense during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Boulder High School head coach, Ryan Bishop, during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Denver East's Isaiah Davis escapes Boulder's Julian Mechels, but not Drake Arthur during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Boulder's Luke Zana gets fired up before the Denver East at Boulder game at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

  • Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer

    Denver East's Berto Zepeda tries to spin away from Boulder's Elijah Graham during the Denver East at Boulder at Recht Field on May 8, 2021.

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Boulder, overcoming a series of off-the-field trials in putting together a dream-like run deep into the spring football postseason, is now just a game away from perfection.

As Denver East arrived somewhat unexpectedly to the Class 5A semifinals at Recht Field Saturday, just a week after stunning crosstown-rival Denver South in the 1-vs-8 matchup of the opening round, the Panthers met them with yet another dazzling defensive effort. And in keeping its unhinged season unbelievably unblemished, Boulder held on for a 6-3 win to reach its first title game since 1992.

It will face the Far Northeast Warriors next Saturday at the Neta and Eddie DeRose Thunderbowl on the Colorado State University-Pueblo campus.

“We’ve all had to overcome so much — the community, us personally, with COVID, with everything,” Boulder coach Ryan Bishop said before taking a moment. “Words can’t describe it. I lost my mom in September and I know that she is just so proud, so proud. And that’s what this is about. Overcoming adversity, making this community proud, this school proud, the administration proud.”

The fourth-seeded Panthers (6-0), allowing just 35 points through their first five games, continued their dominance on the defensive side of the ball. Agitating Denver East quarterback Dylan Wigglesworth throughout, and thwarting a running attack that had carried it to an upset win over the top-seeded Ravens last week, they held a third opponent to less than a touchdown this season.

Better yet, they were again solid in the clutch. Holding onto the three-point advantage in the fourth quarter, the stifling unit pushed the Angels (3-5) backwards after they’d crossed Boulder’s 35-yard-line for just the second time in the game, and forced them into a punt.

From there, the offense, led by backup quarterback Tristan Langenegger, burned the final 6:44 on a drive that started inside its own 5.

In celebration, players mobbed each other following the last kneel-down. Students allowed in the stadium later formed a tunnel for players, and even coach Bishop, to run through in pure elation.

“We bent, but we didn’t break,” Bishop said. “We overcame a lot of adversity in this game. And that’s what this game is about. I can’t say enough about our defense and our team as a whole.”

While Boulder’s defense kept making stops, the offense sputtered most of the night. But with a short field goal by Denver East’s Jackson Howes hanging alone on the scoreboard for two-plus quarters, the Panthers finally answered.

A muffed punt by the Angels set the offense up in plus territory, and five plays later, Declan Culberson got behind a steamroll push by his line and carried a few defenders into the endzone on a go-ahead, 10-yard rushing TD.

For Boulder, the season already marks one that won’t soon be forgotten around town. With six straight wins, the program appears to have taken a giant leap forward. After snapping a five-season playoff drought, Saturday’s win was the first time reaching six wins in a season in at least 17 years, per MaxPreps.

Now, there’s just one more step.

“It’s going to take exactly what we’ve done all year,” Bishop said. “Play all four quarters and find a way to make big plays.”

What a run it has been. The Panthers rode a five-game winning streak into their first state semifinals appearance in two decades. After opting out of the traditional fall season due to pandemic concerns, they started the spring in quarantine, and then maneuvered through a virus-stricken schedule that saw changes each week of the regular season.

Their first game came seven days following the mass shooting at a nearby Kings Soopers. Throughout the year, they paid tribute to the victims of the community massacre. Prior to the season-opener, they lined up and knelt along the hash marks across from Mountain Range, as Bishop laid down a No. 10 jersey to symbolize the number of lives lost that day. Then last week, it presented another jersey to alum Logan Smith, who has widely been deemed a hero for his selfless actions while working at the Starbucks kiosk inside the supermarket during the shooting.

Next weekend’s championship will allow 3,100 fans inside the stadium, per CHSAA.