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Football: Erie falls in Class 4A championship heartbreaker

Chatfield gets winning touchdown with just 11 seconds to go

Erie Tigers WR Caden Lettis (8) ...
Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Erie Tigers WR Caden Lettis (8) makes a catch for long yardage against Chatfield Chargers DB Guse Shelp (14) in the first quarter of the 2021 4A State championship football game at Empower Field at Mile High Dec. 04, 2021.

DENVER — Gauge Nichols almost didn’t catch Blake Barnett’s pass into the end zone at the end of the first quarter of the Class 4A state title game.

The ball bounced off of his chest, off of a Chatfield defender and back into his hands to give the Tigers a 13-point lead early. That play, though positive for Erie early into the contest at Empower Field at Mile High, foreshadowed what would be a sloppy offensive showing for the Tigers as Chatfield defeated them with a 41-34 finish to claim the 4A championship hardware.

Throughout the contest, Erie committed penalty after penalty as Chatfield didn’t transgress a single one. Barnett, a sophomore, also threw two interceptions. The amalgamation of those errors cost the Tigers more than anything when it came down to it.

The runner-up finish ended a near-perfect season as the Tigers didn’t drop a single matchup up until that point.

“The only reason why I hurt is because they hurt,” head coach Jeff Giger said. “You want everything to be their way. Right now, in their life, it’s everything to them. They’ll understand later on that it was a blip in their whole life. … All you’re going to do is second-guess yourself for the next month on what you could have done differently. Everything they’ve done, I’m just so proud of them.”

Andy Cross/The Denver Post
DENVER, CO – DECEMBER 04: Erie Tigers QB Blake Barnett (3) stiff arms Chatfield Chargers defender Dakota Balderson (49) on a keeper in the first quarter of the 2021 4A State championship football game at Empower Field at Mile High December 04, 2021. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Barnett finished with 247 passing yards, mainly to Jaylen Klickna (106 receiving yards) as Barnett and Caleb Theisen took charge of the run game with 153 and 122 yards, respectively. Defensively, they couldn’t stop CHS’ Sam Ayres, Jake Marschall or Mason Lowe.

Despite myriad mishaps, the two teams took the game all the way down to the wire. After falling behind 34-20 with 10 minutes left on the clock, the Tigers did what they do best. They punched the ball into the end zone four minutes later, only to do it again four minutes after that with a beautiful pass to Aidan Achtziger in the northeast corner of the end zone.

He skied over a Chatfield defender to bring down the incredible catch.

“I knew it was a play we like to run a lot,” Achtziger said. “It’s a wheel post concept, and I come around the end and usually, my job is just to distract the corner. But Blake trusts me, my quarterback trusts me to be in a one-on-one matchup and I just went up and grabbed it. Usually, when teams don’t pay enough attention to us, it’ll be wide open. Chatfield had a great defense and it really just came down to whether I was going to jump higher or he was going to jump higher. It was me.”

That tied the game up at 34 with 1:54 remaining, but the Chargers had a few tricks up their sleeves. They stormed down the field with the same ferocity they had throughout the previous 35 minutes and, thanks to a perfectly-executed hook and ladder that earned them major yardage, were able to put themselves in the best position to seal the deal.

Quarterback Jake Jones did so with a flawless 32-yard pass to Drew Rohlman with 11 seconds left to play. Erie didn’t have enough time to respond.

“I’m so proud of this team,” Achtziger said. “Obviously, it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but we went 13-1. We did things that people said that we couldn’t do. We beat the No. 1 seed (Montrose in the semifinals) and made it to the state championship. It would have been great to take home a ring, but you can’t always get what you want.”

The runner-up finish capped off an incredibly successful first year with Giger at the helm and it should certainly give the Tigers plenty to look forward to in the future. The Tigers responded with grace.

“Just the fact that they came together so quickly, really, even when we first got there with the new staff and everything, we had to get things going probably sooner than normal,” he said. “We had to do a lot of things that usually take two to three years and they had to do it in a month or two. They bought in and did it and jumped all over it.”

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