Pine Creek stands alone at the top of the 4A Pikes Peak League standings, and the Eagles control their destiny as far as who hoists the championship trophy in three weeks.
Yet, two early season losses to 5A schools have the Eagles looking up to league foe Falcon when the latest wild-card points were released earlier this week by the Colorado High School Activities Association.
Wild-card points determine seedings for the 16 schools that make the playoffs in 5A-2A. Falcon, ranked fifth, and No. 6 Pine Creek are the area's only teams among the top 16 in the latest 4A rankings.
At this time, it's somewhat of a moot point with plenty of football remaining.
"Right now, we're just worrying about winning a conference championship," said offensive line coach Matt Wibbels, whose Eagles (5-2, 4-0 Pikes Peak) host Ponderosa (4-3, 3-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday at District 20 Stadium. "The wild-card points count, but if you win your league, you get a guaranteed home playoff game in the first round. That's what we're preaching to our kids."
For the past two seasons, Pine Creek has faced exclusively 5A competition in its three-game nonleague schedule in Fountain-Fort Carson, Lakewood and Columbine. While the tougher competition has forged a stronger and more physical unit this season, attempts at a same-class nonleague slate will be the top priority next season.
"I think it's paying off right now for them," Eagles athletic director Matt Mahan said. "But as a whole, we'd like to get back to a level where it's even for all of us. The last two years, those first three weeks were taxing on the kids. Our desire is not to play all 5A for nonleague."
And that might even mean a pause in a longtime rivalry with 5A Fountain-Fort Carson, with whom the Eagles have won seven of the past 10 meetings, including a 23-14 victory Aug. 23 in the season opener in Zero Week.
Much depends on next month's reclassification proceedings with the CHSAA's Classification League Organization Committee that will put schools into classes and leagues for the next two-year cycle.
"That's been a good rivalry for us," Mahan said. "Even then, if we do, we'd prefer not the first week, so it may not work with their schedule. We'll put that out there. When you start out 0-3 and 1-2, it prepares you for our league, but we need to get a couple of wins early to keep morale up. Hopefully, we'll be able to pick up 4A schools."
In the wild-card format, teams earn victory points for each win and defeat points after a loss. A smaller-class team, such as Pine Creek, would earn more points with a win over a 5A team. Both categories of points increase with the number of wins each team accumulates - and conversely with teams that lose - meaning the Eagles' wild-card points total will increase when Lakewood and Columbine win games over the next three weeks.
"The basis on the points has always tried to reflect the strength of an opponents' schedule, so it's not only the games your team plays, but also the games that your teams' opponents have played," CHSAA assistant commissioner Bert Borgmann said. "That is what measures the 'strength of schedule.' The football committee adjusted the defeat points upward two years ago and that should help those schools playing the tougher schedule."
Pine Creek entered last cycle fresh off a berth in the 4A state championship game, so many 4A teams were leery of meeting such an opponent in a nonleague setting. Seeing 5A competition over three consecutive weeks served as an eye-opener for Eagles junior quarterback Tommy Lazzaro, who admits he's come a long way since then.
"Those three games were tough," said Lazzaro, who tossed a career-high six touchdown passes in last week's 70-27 win at Sand Creek. "I was real impatient in the pocket. Those games definitely helped me realize how I need to play to get to the next level. It was good competition for all of us."