PUEBLO — When The Classical Academy huddled for the final time before leaving a heartbreaking state championship game, coach Justin Rich called on Cade Palmer to provide the final word.

There was an unmistakable message behind the move.

Moments earlier, TCA had fallen 35-34 to Rifle in the spring football 3A championship game at CSU-Pueblo on Saturday. Palmer, the junior sensation with an offer from Michigan State, had rushed for 346 yards and three touchdowns. But the pivotal play of the game came when Palmer was stripped of the ball with 1:15 remaining by the Bears’ Josh Avila.

“It felt great, it was like I won the lottery or something,” Avila said afterward.

The elation was matched on the opposite end of the spectrum by TCA and Palmer.

“I’ve been waiting all year, more than a year, for this,” said Palmer, whose unofficial stat line for his six games this season was 1,122 rushing yards on 92 carries — 12.2 yards per carry — with 18 touchdowns. “I just wanted to play the best that I could.

“I was tired. I put everything I had into it. I didn’t have anything left there at the end.”

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Placing to the side all of the oddity that led to this – the COVID-19 stops and starts that led to TCA missing out on a fall season and then stomping on everyone in its path during the spring slate (outscoring opponents 290-32) — the flow of the action on Saturday made the stakes feel impossibly high by the waning moments of the game.

TCA shot out to a 14-0 lead. Rifle started easing back into it behind its running game, pulling to within 20-13 at halftime.

Then, the Bears played keep-away. They chewed 9:16 off the clock on an 80-yard drive to start the second half, tacking on a 2-point conversion to take the lead. They then converted an onside kick.

“I could sense how deflating it was for them and how much it meant for us,” said Rifle’s Embrey Marantino, who was named the game’s MVP. “It was just perfect.”

This was on top of a 6-for-6 performance on fourth down, as TCA just couldn’t get Palmer & Co. back on the field.

“It was the difference in the game,” Rifle coach Todd Casebier said of keeping TCA’s offense sidelined. “We couldn’t stop them.”

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TCA finally ran its first offensive play of the second half with 10:13 remaining in the fourth quarter as it trailed 28-20. The teams exchanged scores and then Rifle took the ball, up by a point, with 3:56 remaining.

If the trend had held, the Bears would have picked up a few first downs and run out the clock.

But TCA defensive tackle Tanner Eide, with help from outside linebacker Chase Keller, dislodged the ball from Rifle’s Trey Caldwell and Aaron Johnson recovered for the Titans.

Runs from Palmer and an 11-yard pass from Sam Guilez to Matthew Segovia pushed the Titans inside the 30-yard line.

That helpless feeling of watching Rifle chew clock and gain yards had given way to the excitement that a championship was suddenly a touchdown or field goal away.

Then came the strip. And defeat.

Rich wanted to make sure this final punch to the gut in a year that has delivered them in seemingly endless supply wasn’t powerful enough to break up his team, or his star junior running back.

“Cade is a team player, 100 percent,” Rich said. “He’d give everything for the team, and he gave everything for the team. … You talk about a humble giant, he’s awesome. He’s got a lot of football left in him and he’s going to be OK.”

So, Rich spoke to the team before leaving the field. He gathered everyone together. And then he turned it over to Palmer for the final breakdown.

“He’s hurting,” Rich said. “Everybody’s hurting. But we’re not leaving anybody behind.”