Hosting Salida on an unusually warm October evening last Friday, the Pagosa Pirates made quick work of their hapless Mountain Conference opponents, defeating the Spartans 46-18.
At 2-0 in conference play and 5-1 overall, the Pirates continued their push towards league dominance and chances for postseason supremacy.
The spread, while highlighting the performance of a multi-talented and a multi-dimensional Pagosa offense, should offer evidence that the Pirates’ defense has stepped up in a major way. The unsung heroes of the game, the defense, prevented the Spartans from crossing the 50-yard line until the third quarter, while keeping them scoreless in the first half. In fact, while the quick work was due in part to a running clock mandated in the second half after a 40-0 Pagosa lead, it was the Pirates’ vastly improved defense that prevented the Spartans from really entering the game.
Knowing his team was facing a potentially big opponent (despite Salida’s being winless this season), coach Sean O’Donnell said, “They kind of look past that, they work hard and look at the bigger picture.”
After electing to receive, the Pirates took little time putting points on the board. Breaking away on third and one, Tyson Ross avoided a trap in the backfield and took the ball 61 yards for a rush into the end zone and, with a successful kick from Tyler Sharp, the Pirates were up 7-0 just 51 seconds into the first quarter.
Shut down in their drive, the Spartans were forced to punt after being stalled on fourth and 13, with the kick run back 45 yards by Ross to the Salida 35 yard line. Although the Spartans appeared to gain some advantage on a Pagosa holding call and a sack on Pagosa’s quarterback, Taylor Shaffer, Shaffer then connected on a 59-yard pass to Paul Hoffman on third and nine, and at 8:15 into the quarter, the Pirates took a 14-0 lead.
At second and eight on their own 24 yard line, Salida was picked off by Jordan Caler and moments later, Sharp broke through several Spartan tacklers for a 21-yard scoring rush, boosting the score to 20-0 with 5:04 left in the period. The Pagosa defense showed its mettle again, forcing a Salida punt on a fourth and 17 situation. Moments later, Caler took a Shaffer pass right in the numbers, bumping the lead to 27-0 with 4:08 to go in the first.
Apparently discouraged by their punting strategy, Salida took the risk on a fourth and 12 situation that resulted in yet another interception, this time by Pagosa’s Andrew Rice, who took his present all the way to the goal line; unfortunately, the touchdown was called back on a flag thrown on the Pirates. Pagosa erased their mistake the next play and, 11 seconds into the second quarter, another Shaffer-to-Caler pass from 65 yards out pumped the Pirates to a 34-0 advantage.
In their final substantial possession of the half, a gift from Pagosa’s defense, the Pirate offense showed the kind of championship caliber that has stymied opponents throughout the season. After another Shaffer-to-Caler connection for a first down, Zach Lucero took a short Shaffer pass for 22 yards after shaking four Spartan tacklers; Caler then rushed for 29 yards, adding to his big night; Ross also shook off multiple Salida defenders on an 18-yard gain; finally, two rushes by Dakota Miller, to first and goal and then into the end zone, put the Pirates up 40-0 with 5:33 left in the half.
Matching the Pirates in size, but definitely not in execution, the Spartans lost their only chance at a first-half score when Lucero picked off a Salida pass at first and goal with 20 seconds left.
Obviously pleased by the performance of his team, O’Donnell had little to report on the first half performance (other than the obvious fact the defense had stopped the Salida team cold) but said that, overall, “They’re playing awfully well … they enjoy each other, they enjoy playing the game.”
With a running clock instituted in the second half (due to Salida’s 40-point deficit), the following two quarters flew by, the Spartans again shut down by the formidable Pirate defense. Early in the half and forced to punt, a Salida kick resulted in another Pagosa touchdown when Ross took the ball 65 yards, breaking free of numerous Spartan tackles and, free from the final defender at his own 45 yard line, had nothing but grass to contend with.
“Yeah, he got good blocking, but that was the result of a great athlete,” O’Donnell said, ecstatic with the play.
Given the lead, Pirate JV players began taking the field, allowing Salida some room to close the gap. With just seconds left before the third quarter buzzer, the Spartans finally put a mark on the board with a short rush over the goal line, making it a 46-6 game.
Still, after suffering a 40-0 setback in the first half, the running clock worked against the Spartans’ offense. Despite picking off a Pagosa pass and taking it for a quick TD and, later, taking a pass reception in for another score with less than two minutes left in the game, the Spartans never had a chance, even with the Pagosa JV playing most of the second half.
Crediting the overall talent of the team, O’Donnell said, “We knew coming in this year we had some good athletes. We have a good mix of kids, Paul and Tyson and Zach Lucero are all great weapons to have. “ The coach gave special kudos to his quarterback, perhaps the most underrated player in the league, saying, “He’s a hard worker, he’s a smart kid … he’s always thinking about what he can do better, thinking about the game, thinking about what he can do next”
The Pirates have ended their five-game home stretch, and they travel this week for an IML match against the 1-4 Buena Vista Demons (who lost to the Bayfield Wolverines last Friday, 57-21). Considering previous upsets when visiting Buena Vista, O’Donnell was nonetheless confident regarding the road trip, saying, “We’ve got to figure out a way to go over that pass, play hard, and execute well. Buena Vista lost some key kids last year but got some big kids.”
Following the match against the Demons, the Pirates continue their road show with games in Delta (the 3A Panthers are 3-2), another IML conference game against the 1-4 Centauri Falcons at La Jara and then the season finale in Bayfield against their 6-0 conference rivals.