On a warm afternoon in Julesburg, on Nov. 28, the Dove Creek High School football team was blown out by five-time defending state champion Sedgwick County in the semifinals of the eight-man football playoffs.
For Kade Hankins and other members of the Dove Creek program, however, the Bulldogs’ first trip to the state semifinals in 29 years will be remembered for far more than its season-ending defeat at the hands of one of the state’s dominant football programs.
“It’s a great experience,” Hankins said. “Last time we did this was 29 years ago, and we don’t get to do it very often. We came up here and did what we could do as a team and I’m going to remember it for a long time. It’s going to be a great memory.”
“This group of kids is neat,” said Dove Creek head coach Shane Baughman. They are a well-behaved young men in the classroom and on the field, and all that translates. They are respectful everywhere we go, and they are just gentlemen. I think that’s the thing that I will miss about this particular group.”
While the lopsided final score was not what the Bulldogs envisioned during their 10-hour bus ride Colorado’s northeastern corner, their effort against one of Colorado’s most storied football programs was stellar for much of the opening 12 minutes.
Among the many Dove Creek players who stepped up big were seniors Austin Beanland, Hayden Gray and Blaine Johnson, who doled out powerful hits that held Sedgwick County’s offense in check for much of the opening quarter.
The Cougars did eventually break through when Tate Goddard raced into the end zone from 10 yards out, and the five-time defending state champions built a 16-0 lead later in the opening quarter when Jared Ehmke tossed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Hackbart with 4:55 left.
“We started off good,” Beanland said. “We were playing good, and I just felt like it kind of dropped off. I don’t know if we got tired or what, but we just kind of fell.”
Although overcoming their early two-touchdown deficit presented a tall mountain to climb, the Bulldogs nearly made things interesting when junior quarterback Chorbin Cressler rolled out of the pocket and tossed a 34-yard touchdown pass to Hankins only to see the score called back because of a penalty.
“It was the perfect play,” Hankins said. “I was there for the ball. I didn’t see what happened, I guess (Cressler) stepped over the (line of scrimmage before he threw the ball).”
Trailing 16-0 as the second quarter got underway, Dove Creek surrendered a 43-yard touchdown run to Brody Parker before delivering a memorable highlight of their own when Cressler scored on a 63-yard quarterback draw to make the score 24-6 with 2:51 left in the opening half.
According to several fans in attendance, Cressler’s scoring run represented the first touchdown given up by Sedgwick County’s varsity defense this season and one of a few touchdowns given up by the team’s top defensive unit in recent years.
“In the huddle, we talked about (if their defense) was crashing, I would just shoot my gap and go,” Cressler said of the big play. “I took off running, and I felt myself get pulled on, but they didn’t have my legs, so I ended up breaking away for the score.”
While Cressler’s score provided the Bulldogs with a glimmer of hope, the Cougars quickly extinguished it in the final two minutes of the half with a touchdown run and a 65-yard punt return. Heading into halftime, the score was 40-6.
“The first quarter, I thought we were playing right with them,” Baughman said. “We just had a couple of mistakes, and it spiraled from there in the second quarter. Against a five-time defending state-champion team, you can’t make mistakes like that because they will just capitalize.”
As Sedgwick County players celebrated and fans in attendance cheered both teams, several Bulldogs players, including brothers Austin and Tyson Beanland exchanged hugs and shed tears together for the final time.
“It meant everything to our town as a whole,” Austin Beanland said of his team’s epic run. “We pursued our dreams, and we believed in ourselves. I’m going to remember the bond that we had with each other. We never wanted to give up and quit.”
While Dove Creek will lose several key seniors from this year’s team, which ended the season with a 5-2 record overall, several talented underclassmen, including Cressler and Hankins, will head into the offseason with hopes returning to the state playoffs next year.
Also carrying high hopes into the offseason will be Baughman, who stressed that this year’s historic run was the result of hard work by the team’s seniors, whose commitment to the weight room and to each other set the stage for success in the years to come.
“Our seniors were in the weight room together, and they were in that hard year their freshman year where we didn’t win a lot of games,” the head coach said. “They’ve been on both sides of the coin. Our underclassmen need to have that same work ethic that our senior bunch has. There is a good group of kids coming up in the next few years, and hopefully we have that culture started.”