LAFAYETTE - For years as it climbed up the state football ladder, Pine Creek would dominate in the regular season only to tense up and fall in the playoffs.
There was no tension Saturday.
Coaches were dancing during pregame, the defense forced a three-and-out on the first possession and the offense created an early lead over No. 2 Monarch that the No. 3 Eagles never relinquished in a 21-7 4A semifinal victory at Centaurus High School.
Pine Creek (11-2) advances to the 4A championship game for the second time in three years as it will play top-seeded Montrose (a 39-38 double-overtime winner over Pueblo South in the other semifinal) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
"Sometimes you just leave it in your kids' hands and you trust them," coach Todd Miller said.
Clearly playing without the burden of internal or external pressure, Pine Creek wasted no time showing what it could do. Aside from its quick three-and-out as it tried to establish a passing game - something it quickly abandoned - the Eagles outgained their hosts 215-67 in the first half.
Even then, the lead was just 7-0 and Monarch (10-2), which had averaged 49 points, was sitting there within a score.
"I think there was pressure, but I think we were on such a roll that we were just clicking as a team and with team chemistry," said running back Austin Schultz, who rumbled for 190 yards on 16 carries and scored the game's first touchdown. "We were nervous, but we knew we could do it."
Pine Creek opened a 14-0 lead early in the third quarter on a Tommy Lazzaro touchdown before Monarch made things interesting on a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Jay MacIntyre - son of Colorado football coach Mike MacIntyre, who was in attendance.
Monarch later had the ball deep in Pine Creek's territory with a chance to tie, but the Eagles held on a fourth-and-4 at their 14.
"Up front they did a lot of good stuff against us to manhandle us on the line of scrimmage with their defensive line," said Coyotes coach Phil Bravo, whose team also fell to Pine Creek in the semifinals two years ago. In those two games, Monarch has not scored an offensive touchdown against the Eagles.
Against everyone else, Monarch had been spectacular. Tailback Ethan Marks, for example, entered the game with 1,567 rushing yards. Against Pine Creek he managed just 56 on 22 carries.
"You get in these situations and you don't know how good you are," Miller said. "We found out today that we have a pretty good football team."
With the game there for the taking, Schultz took over in the fourth. The senior rumbled for 79 yards on an 86-yard drive that sealed the victory for the Eagles.
Schultz led an attack that ran for 395 yards and outgained Monarch 429-137 in total yards.
"We knew Monarch was a great team, but we knew we could do it, too," Schultz said. "We were in their way and they were in our way to get to the state title game. I was just thinking hold onto the ball, don't you dare trip and we can do this."
Matt List's touchdown capped the drive and Eric Warren put away the game with an interception on Monarch's ensuing drive.
"I'm speechless," List said. "It's fun, and that's how football is supposed to be."
Yes, the dominating run game and defense look like just like Pine Creek of old. But it's that fun that has been added to the equation and has the Eagles within a victory of the school's first football championship.