Sam Smith remembers well when wearing his Coronado football jersey to school on Friday didn't elicit positive responses.

"People in the halls didn't look down at us," Smith said. "But they would say 'Oh, you play football' in a bad sense."

The year was 2010, and the program was coming off consecutive 0-10 seasons.

In an attempt to kick-start football back on the Westside, Coronado applied to the Classification and League Organizing Committee to play down a classification. It certainly met the criteria of holding a combined winning percentage of less than .250 for the previous four seasons.

And then some. Actually, the Cougars were 5-35 (.125) from 2006-09.

Moving down to 3A didn't immediately reap tangible benefits. Coronado went 2-8 in Smith's freshman year, then winless in 10 games in 2011. Once again, the Cougars were granted a two-year play-down as, gradually, the program made baby steps to respectability.

"It's obviously been tough based on the records, but every year, we've progressed," Cougars third-year coach Bobby Lizarraga said. "The running clock was a regular thing, and we were able to eliminate that and reduce the deficit of the scores. People didn't see that. When we went 5-5 (in 2012), we started getting more interest, and more kids started coming out."

But no one could have seen what was in store during the 2013 season.

By going 12-1, Coronado has notched the same number of wins since August that were claimed in the previous seven seasons combined. At 1 p.m. Saturday at Everly-Montgomery Field in Longmont, the Cougars can win their first state title by beating Silver Creek (10-2), the 3A runner-up last year and 2011 state champs.

"I think playing down is one way for schools to look at a way to revitalize a program," said Bert Borgmann, assistant commissioner at the Colorado High School Activities Association. "I'm not convinced that we've had a whole lot of success on the whole, but I don't recall any other playdown team making it to the state championship."

And that has created an entirely different atmosphere in the Coronado hallways these days.

"Now, people are interested in the football program again," Smith said. "They ask about when our next game is. It's pretty cool. When I look back to three years ago, I couldn't have looked ahead and said we'd be playing for the state championship. It's been an awesome journey."

Next season, Coronado will return to 4A, this time with plenty of momentum, regardless of Saturday's outcome.

The program is back, and the interest is back. Heck, Lizarraga even had to turn away a few who wanted to join the fray after an historic 4-0 start.

"Now kids are asking to come out," Lizarraga said. "We'll be more experienced and confident going to 4A now. Would we have done this all along? I think we would have become competitive at some point, but I don't know. I don't think I'd risk my house or anything."