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Pirates come up short against Bayfield, face Aspen in playoffs

Stumbling for the final game of the regular season, the Pagosa Springs Pirates were unable to overcome their perennial rivals, taking a 21-20 loss at the hands of the Wolverines in Bayfield.

“They had to beat us tonight,” said coach Sean O’Donnell after the game, referring to Bayfield’s post-season aspirations. “I don’t think we played very well tonight. It’s unfortunate the way it turned out.”

Unfortunately, the Pirate defense (which has shown vast improvement from a weak start at the beginning of the season) was unable to provide a sufficient challenge to a determined Wolverine offense. More than that, Pagosa’s trademark combined air and ground attack seemed stalled against a Bayfield defense that must have had a peek at Pagosa’s playbook.

Capitalizing on a flubbed kickoff by Pagosa, the Wolverines made the most of advantageous field position, taking a rush out of the wing formation for a nine-yard touchdown. Making good on the two-point conversion, Bayfield shut Pagosa out in the first quarter with an 8-0 lead.

With both teams holding ground and forcing turnovers, the first half was a defensive showcase, neither team able to build offensive momentum. An 11th-hour drive at the end of the half by the Pirates eventually put some Pagosa points on the board. With less than a minute left in the half, quarterback Taylor Shaffer ran the ball into the end zone, making it an 8-6 game at the end of the half.

Coming into the third period, Bayfield’s defense was able to shut the Pirates down cold, while giving the Wolverine’s offense good enough field position to allow Bayfield to widen the lead. After batting down a Pagosa punt on fourth and 15, the Wolverines took over on their own 25-yard line and made good on the drive. Using the wing formation to their advantage (a tactic Alamosa had used effectively in their win against Pagosa), the Wolverines combined rushing and passing to overcome a stymied Pagosa defense, scoring on a touchdown pass with 3:14 left in the quarter and making it a 14-6 game.

“We didn’t tackle very well, we missed a lot of tackles,” O’Donnell said.

Pagosa was unable to get past Bayfield’s defense on their next possession and, having given the ball back to the Wolverines, saw their deficit increase as Bayfield rushed in for a touchdown just six seconds into the fourth quarter.

Down 21-6 at the start of the fourth, Pagosa managed a final quarter rally. After a Pagosa pass was picked off early in their possession, the Pirates hit back when Paul Hoffman scooped up a Bayfield fumble and took the stolen ball into the end zone, bringing the Pirates within striking distance, 21-14.

The rally continued with the Pagosa defense finally rising to the occasion, stopping the Wolverines dead in their tracks in a late quarter possession. Forcing the punt, the Pirates took the ball at their own 47-yard line. Taking a risk on fourth down, Pagosa was able to make good on the gamble and took the drive deep into Wolverine territory. Finally, a 12-yard rush by Tyson Ross brought the game within one point.

Unfortunately, stopped on the two-point conversion (which would have put the Pirates on top), Pagosa was unable to finish, allowing the Wolverines to run out the clock, sending the Pirates home with a 20-21 loss — their only conference defeat.

“They put together a good scheme for us,” O’Donnell said, regarding the Wolverine’s game plan. “Their players performed really well.”

With the loss last Friday, the Pirates are 7-3 overall for the season and 4-1 in conference, sharing the conference title with the Salida Spartans.

The Pirates return home to Golden Peaks stadium at 1 p.m. Saturday, hosting the 8-2 Aspen Skiers. Coming into the game on a three-game winning streak, the Skiers look to hold the advantage with a formidable defense and a strong running game (269.7 rushing yards per game compared to the Pirate’s 177.9). Aspen running back Nicky Ufkes has averaged 202.4 rushing yards per game this season.

“He’s maybe the best we’ve seen all year,” O’Donnell said.

However, the Pirates show better numbers with passing (242.3 yards per game compared to 94.3 for Aspen) as well as total yards per game (420.2 to 364 for Aspen).

Regarding the apparent air superiority of the Pirates, O’Donnell said, “It’s definitely something we’ll be focused on. We’ll go with our strengths and take it from there.”

It should also be noted that although the Pirates took two of their losses from 3A teams this season (both games within three points), the Skiers have not faced any 3A teams. Furthermore, one of Aspen’s losses this season came at the hands of the 1A Hotchkiss Bulldogs.

“It’s tough to tell,” O’Donnell said. “We haven’t played any of the teams they’ve played, so it’s hard to judge, based on their record.”

Having looked at some game films, O’Donnell assessed the Skiers’ chances, saying, “They play very fast. They get off the ball quickly and aggressively. If we can make a few adjustments defensively and keep them from getting past the goal line, we’ll win.”

Despite some impressive numbers, the Skiers will be playing in the Pirates’ house after taking the long trip from Aspen. It will be interesting to see if the Skiers bring the momentum of three wins with them — or if the Pirates feel fired up after coming up one point shy against their conference rivals.

jim@pagosasun.com