Let me offer a friendly warning for the Palmer Ridge Bears as they prepare to invade Pueblo:
Guys, prepare for a harsh journey. Prepare for extreme, but never endangering, hostility. Prepare to take on an entire city, one inhabited by fans who love high school football with a ferocity common in Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida but rare in Colorado.
The Bears seek their second straight 3A championship in Saturday’s clash with the Pueblo East Eagles, who seek their fourth 3A title in five seasons. It should be quite a show at the CSU-Pueblo ThunderBowl, on the field and off.
I talked this week with my friend Joe Cervi, a longtime Pueblo sports journalist and proud native of Colorado’s Steel City.
“Palmer Ridge is not only going to run into Pueblo East,” Cervi says. “They’re going to run into Pueblo fanaticism.”
Here’s what he means:
High school football rivalries are fierce in Pueblo, but the team left standing in the playoffs can expect support from all vanquished Pueblo schools. This means a throng of loud fans will gather at the ThunderBowl to cheer for the Eagles and boo the Bears.
“Pueblo supports Pueblo,” says Eagles coach Andy Watts, a 2003 Pueblo East grad.
Two seasons ago, Pueblo East defeated Discovery Canyon for the 3A title at District 20 Stadium on the northeast side of Colorado Springs. Fans from Pueblo, according to East supporters, far outnumbered fans from the Springs.
Senior Luc Andrada stars at quarterback for East. He was born in Pueblo, and he’s intensely proud of his hometown.
“After we won the championship,” Andrada says of the Discovery Canyon win, “kids from every Pueblo high school were coming on the field to congratulate us. We back our city up.”
Let’s be clear: The Eagles will need all the help their hometown fans can offer for the Bears-Eagles rematch. East defeated Palmer Ridge, 28-21, in the third game of the season in a dramatic and surprising battle in Monument.
Palmer Ridge superstar Ty Evans threw 12 interceptions on 677 throws in his sophomore and junior seasons, a superlative ratio for a gunslinger quarterback.
He threw five interceptions on 41 throws against East, and his longest completion was 15 yards. Senior defensive back Kain Medrano, who’s headed to UCLA, collected three of the interceptions. Watts says East’s defensive strategy was to force Evans to make tough decisions. The strategy worked spectacularly.
Andrada expects a strong rebound from his rival QB.
“I expect to see him playing, I wouldn’t say more reserved, but I would expect him to make better decisions and to try to pick us apart with some little throws,” Andrada says. “He wants that earlier game back, so we’re not going to expect anything but the best from him.”
Since the loss to East, Palmer Ridge has roared to 10 straight wins, outscoring opponents, 461-63. Yes, the Bears will compete in the wildly unfriendly confines of the ThunderBowl, but the Bears still rank as favorites to repeat as 3A champs.
But, remember, East has recovered and learned from early season troubles, too. The Eagles were 3-2 after a stinging loss to Discovery Canyon. Medrano struggled with an injured right shoulder, and the season looked shaky.
The Eagles, like the Bears, regrouped. They stampeded to eight straight wins, outscoring opponents 318-111, including a 42-0 playoff triumph over Discovery Canyon.
Pueblo East features serious star power. Andrada combines an accurate arm — he’s thrown for 30 TDs and only five interceptions — with speed unmatched in 3A football.
He won the 100 sprint at the state track meet, and finished second in the 200. He’s rushed for 872 yards this season.
Andrada has thrown passes to Medrano for a dozen years, dating back to when they were little guys running around wearing flags. This season, Medrano caught 59 passes for 1,063 yards and 18 TDs. The Andrada-Medrano combination is potentially devastating.
Medrano, standing in a hallway at East, laughs as he looks ahead to the title game. The Eagles don’t need a team bus Saturday. They could walk from their campus to the ThunderBowl. It’s only a mile and a half away.
“I think it’s going to be crazy,” Medrano says. “Pueblo is a big sports town and everyone is going to be here, no matter if they’re our rivals or not.”
Brace yourself, Palmer Ridge Bears. I think this invasion is going to be a lot of fun.