Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer
Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer
ERIE — Montrose took a two-touchdown lead with just 5 minutes, 45 seconds left on the clock Saturday afternoon. With the No. 1 seeded Indians to thank, Erie had its back up against the wall during the Class 4A state semifinals, and for the first time all season.
The Tigers decided they didn’t like that feeling.
Over the next 83 seconds, the Tigers pushed hard against the Indians as they drove the ball downfield as quickly as possible until, at the 4:02 mark, sophomore Blake Barnett cut the deficit in half with a quarterback keeper. They only had one real play left in their playbook if they had any hope of stunning 4A’s top team.
Erie executed the onside kick flawlessly, thanks to a perfect play from senior cornerback Seanthomas Francisco. The Tigers spent the next few minutes pushing toward the end zone before Barnett successfully connected with Jaylen Klickna.
With only 1:43 left on the clock, they went for broke on the 2-point conversion to take the 29-28 lead. The Indians responded with a monster 40-yard pass from quarterback Gage Wareham to Ethan Hartmann on their first play after the score. The very next play, Erie forced a turnover that senior cornerback Caleb Theisen recovered.
“We really found our heart and rallied. We said we weren’t going to lose on our turf,” Theisen said. “It was, ‘Holy (expletive), we have a shot.’ Then the offense rallied, Blake went in for two. It’s literally a fairytale ending.”
Practice truly made perfect in the end for a team that hadn’t seen that kind of challenge throughout its now 13-0 season. Now, the Tigers are headed to the title game after completing an instant classic in the semifinals.
“The onside kick is something we’ve been working on all year and just never ran it,” head coach Jeff Giger said. “When we got that, I was pretty much set on going for two if we scored because I didn’t know if we’d be able to stop them from 10 yards out (in overtime).”
In just another example of star effort, Barnett finished the contest with 218 passing yards and Theisen took charge of the running and receiving game with 184 total yards of his own. Francisco, Barnett and Theisen all played the hero role with their consecutive efforts in crunch time.
Earlier, Erie stormed out to the quick lead when Barnett connected with Aidan Achtziger for a 14-yard score just four minutes into the action. Montrose, not one to let a team lead it that early, responded with two touchdowns of its own, including an 11-yard Hartmann run with 1:24 left in the first half.
The next 60 seconds foreshadowed what would be in store for the Tigers and Indians.
Erie had just 1:15 to go until halftime but desperately needed to make a move on the Indians before they headed to the locker rooms. They capitalized on a massive 40-plus yard pass from Barnett to Theisen, who eventually took the ball into the end zone just a few plays later to score the equalizer and steal the momentum away from the Indians.
Montrose came out even harder in the second half, though, as it built up a 28-14 lead with just under six minutes left thanks to a few costly Erie personal fouls in addition to a fumble.
The rest will be enshrined in Erie history as one of the greatest games in the program’s existence.
Now, the Tigers get to test their talents against No. 7 Chatfield for the Class 4A state championship at Empower Field at Mile High next Saturday. If the Montrose game taught the Chargers anything, it’s that they should never count the Tigers out.
In fact, they should be very afraid.
“This gives us a lot of momentum knowing that we can rally as a team,” Theisen said. “Even when we’re down, we’re not out of the game.”