They say it’s tough to beat the same team twice in one season.
On Saturday, the Palmer Ridge football team hopes that remains true as the Bears get a second chance against Pueblo East - but more than bragging rights are on the line.
Pueblo East and Palmer Ridge will clash for the second time this season, but this time the winner will reign as the 2018 Class 3A state champion.
The Eagles are looking for their fourth state championship in five years, while Palmer Ridge hopes to claim its second straight 3A state title as the program establishes itself as a dominant force in 3A football.
“Obviously both teams have been in similar positions for the last five years now, and now both are meeting in the middle,” said Pueblo East coach Andrew Watts. “I think that we knew after Week 3 that we would see each other again, and I think we both hoped that it was going to be in December.”
Flashback to September 7, when Pueblo East defeated the defending state champions 28-21. The Eagles secondary picked apart Palmer Ridge’s normally prolific passing game led by quarterback Ty Evans.
Evans threw five interceptions - the most he’s ever thrown in his long career under center.
“That was probably the worst game of football I’ve ever played, and I know that,” Evans said. “But I think we’ve grown a lot (since Week 3) and I think we will come out on Saturday a completely different team than what they saw. It’s going to be exciting and I think everyone is going to be watching to see what happens.”
The Bears have won 11 straight since their game against East, outscoring opponents 461-63 along the way thanks to a resurgence in their run game, led by junior back Raef Ruel. Through the last four games Ruel is averaging 20 carries and nearly 125 yards per game. His efforts are aided by junior Noah Brom with 382 rushing yards, Evans with 334 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, and Josiah Castro with 145 yards. Castro has had just eight touches through the last two games, but is averaging 10.3 yards per carry.
“In any game we go into we want to be ready to do either one and have good balance,” Palmer Ridge coach Tom Pulford said. “We’ve been able to run the ball effectively against opponents recently, but we need to be ready to do both and be as balanced as we can and put our athletes in good position to make plays.”
One of Palmer Ridge’s biggest goals each time the team walks onto the field is to make a statement early. Score fast, and often - a mantra that the Bears will need to continue entering a neutral site game in enemy territory.
Walking into the CSU-Pueblo ThunderBowl as the ‘home’ team, Palmer Ridge will no doubt be the visitor as the city of Pueblo shuts down to support their own.
“We are undefeated at USU-P and we have to keep it that way,” said East’s Kain Medrano. “Playing here gives us a great advantage in this game.”
The Palmer Ridge offense has scored on its first possession in eight straight games while the defense has allowed just one touchdown by opponents on their first possession in the last eight games.
“That’s going to be our biggest thing is coming out fast,” said senior linebacker JC Sparks. “I personally want defense to go first, but that’s every game. It doesn’t matter if offense or defense goes first I know that our biggest thing is going to be tempo. Our defense is going to be stopping their tempo which we are going to be used to but it’s a lot of preparing and game planning for us to fast and our coaches putting us in the right position to go fast."
Evans has continued to lead the passing game with a .537 completion percentage through the last four games, averaging 181 yards per game. His top receiver Deuce Roberson has 887 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, followed by Charlie Deeds with 476 and Kaden Dudley with 334.
But the story of the year has been the Palmer Ridge defense, which has allowed just 28 points through the postseason and ended their regular-season slate with back-to-back shutouts.
But the Bears will again meet arguably the most dangerous passing game they’ve faced this season, and an equally strong running attack.
Led by senior quarterback Luc Andrada, the Eagles average more than 235 receiving yards per game. Through the postseason Andrada averages 219 passing yards, and a .548 completion percentage, but has thrown two of his five interceptions on the year last week in East’s semifinal game against Erie.
Palmer Ridge, on the other hand, leads Class 3A in interceptions with 19, led by Dudley with nine.
Andrada also anchors the run game with 872 yards. He is averaging 83 yards per game through the playoffs. Patrick Gonzales is second on the team in rushing with 721 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Palmer Ridge’s top tackler Sparks has a knack for finding the ball, leading the team with 125 tackles, including 28 for a loss, and has 13 sacks. The Bears average four sacks per game, which leads the state. Sparks says while he expects a different game than September, his defense feels they know East's tendencies and can find the holes to get to Andrada.
“We have been watching a lot of film and we’re going to try to find some weak spots and spread them out,” Sparks said. “We just have to do what we do as a defense and just try to set up for the best way to get sacks, and try to get into the backfield and collapse the play.”
Colton Dill is second on the team with 102 tackles and 18 for a loss for the Bears. Jacob Dillon, who has 70 tackles, leads the team in sacks with 16.5.
While Andrada is no doubt a playmaker, Palmer Ridge will surely key in on senior receiver Kain Medrano, who ran wild in East's win over the Bears in September.
Medrano has 1,063 receiving yards, 239 rushing and leads the team in interceptions with seven - three of those against Evans. He also has 90 tackles including 10 for a loss and a sack.
Pulford said minimizing turnovers has been a big focus while watching game film from September, but he also said his team is at the point of the season where they’re not longer dwelling on that loss to East and focusing on the state championship.
“No one goes into a game thinking on purpose we are going to turn the ball over but at the end of the day we want to focus on the little things and help the players on our team play as fast as we possibly can with confidence and enjoy the process,” Pulford said.
EAGLES-BEARS AT A GLANCE
Game data: No. 4 Palmer Ridge vs. No. 2 Pueblo East … Saturday, 1 p.m. at CSU-Pueblo ThunderBowl.
Media: Follow @LindseySquints, @chhunsun, @davidlukeramsey and @HughJohnson707 on Twitter for updates. Check with GazettePreps.com for stories, highlights and more, sponsored by Pizza Hut.
Ticket information: Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for students and seniors. Tickets will be on sale at the ThunderBowl ticket window from 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. on Friday, and will be sold in the Palmer Ridge High School lobby on Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The ThunderBowl ticket window will open at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday. Gates open at 11 a.m. and kickoff is at 1:07 p.m.
You may also order tickets in advance online here.