For the first time in three decades, the Dove Creek High School football team is headed to the state semifinals, thanks to its 30-12 home victory over Rangely in the opening round of the eight-man football playoffs on Nov. 21.
The victory, which marked the Bulldogs fifth of the year in six tries, was keyed by an outstanding performance by the team’s stingy defense, timely runs by senior running backs Gage Bailey and Gauge Thompson and a solid performance by junior quarterback Chorbin Cressler.
“A million things are going through my mind,” Bailey said. “We haven’t been in this sport for at least 30 years, and it’s an overwhelming feeling. For the town, it’s something special. It’s a blessing to be here with my team.”
While the 18-point margin between the Bulldogs and the Panthers was indicative of a one-sided affair, the Saturday afternoon contest was anything but a blowout until midway through the fourth quarter, at which point Dove Creek began to pull away.
Among the stars for the Bulldogs during the opening half of the contest was Bailey, who scored the game’s opening touchdown on a 64-yard run around the left side, which, after a successful two-point conversation on a pass from Cressler to Thompson, gave Dove Creek an 8-0 lead.
“That play was huge,” said Bailey. “We had great blocking, and I had an open hole. All I saw was sunlight, and I went.”
Also starring for Dove Creek during the game’s opening eight minutes was the team’s speedy defense, led by senior linebacker Hayden Gray and senior defensive end Austin Beanland, who consistently pressured Rangely quarterback Anthony Lujan and delivered several big hits.
Although the strong-armed Lujan did manage to connect with tight end Ryan Richens for an 82-yard touchdown pass with 5:36 left in the opening quarter to make the game 8-6, the senior quarterback consistently struggled to set his feet and throw the ball accurately.
“Us defensive linemen just wanted to get a pass rush on him while our corners and our backers were doing their thing,” Beanland said.
“We just played hard-nosed football,” Bailey added. “We kept it original and smacked them hard right in the mouth.”
While the Bulldogs defense kept the Panthers defense in check, Dove Creek’s offense sputtered before managing to score its second touchdown of the game with 43 seconds left in the opening quarter, thanks to a 39-yard run by Cressler off left tackle.
Keying the play were solid blocks by several Dove Creek linemen, including junior Blaine Johnson, who fired off the line and opened a massive hole on the left side through which Cressler managed to break free.
Ahead 16-6 after its second two-point conversation in as many tries, Dove Creek’s defense held strong in spite of efforts by Lujan and his Panthers teammates to push the ball downfield through the air.
“I think our speed was the biggest factor,” Bulldogs head coach Shane Baughman said about his team’s stout defense. “We have a quick defense, and we rally to the ball.”
The offense helped seal the win late in the game.
Thompson broke at least four tackles in a 25-yard touchdown that gave Dove Creek a 24-6 lead with 7:59 left, and Tyson Beanland followed up with a final defensive highlight by intercepting a pass that was deflected by Austin Beanland at the line of scrimmage.
“I was getting held, and I just saw the ball go up,” the freshman defensive tackle said. “It came into my arms, and I saw stars.”
As time ticked away, the horns of many of the more than 25 trucks that surrounded the Dove Creek field honked and the capacity crowd roared its approval for a Bulldogs team that had not won a playoff game since 2015.
An 8-yard touchdown pass from Cressler to sophomore Kade Hankins with 6:10 left capped off the scoring for Dove Creek before a late touchdown by Rangely running back Zane Varner made the final score 30-12.
“It was pretty special for sure,” Baughman said about the win, gained in front of a large home crowd. “It’s unbelievable right now. The kids deserve it, they worked hard in the weight room all summer long. It’s back to Dove Creek football. It has been a while.”
With their overall record now at 5-1 on the year, the fourth-seeded Bulldogs will prepare for a tough road matchup against five-time defending state champion and No. 1 overall seed Sedgwick County, which defeated Crowley County 45-12.
Although Dove Creek players and coaches agreed that the contest, which will take place in Julesburg on Nov. 28, will be anything but easy, those associated with the Bulldogs program agreed that an upset is not beyond the realm of possibility.
“We know it’s going to be a tough game no matter what,” Gray said. “We just gotta go in knowing that anything can happen. Nobody expected us to get this far this year, so why not do it again.”
“We know what (Sedgwick County) is about,” Baughman said. “We know that they are five-time defending champs. We’re going to embrace it and go play the game.”