It’s no secret that a lot goes into winning back-to-back state football championships.
But game plans, film study and long practice hours are just the beginning.
And the Palmer Ridge football team found that out early.
The 2017 Class 3A state champions entered the 2018 season with a host of veterans from the program’s first title-winning season, and 21 seniors ready to lead the Bears to another state championship. But after a tough start, Palmer Ridge was forced to take a step back, and the seniors reevaluated their position as leaders on the field.
“Starting the season 1-2, we just kind of had to take a look in the mirror and figure out what we had to do,” said senior lineman Jake Dillon. “We all talked and came together as a brotherhood and just started climbing from there.”
The Bears won 10 straight after their early-September loss to Pueblo East, leading up to the 3A state championship game, facing the Eagles once again.
But the fight was different this time around, according to junior Deuce Roberson.
“We came out here and did it again when all of the odds are against us,” said Roberson after Palmer Ridge’s 47-38 win over East for the 3A title. “When the entire town of Pueblo is here, we said screw it, we have our brothers, we have our parents and fans and that’s everything we need.
“Once we started clicking, it all came together, and that all came from the senior leadership,” Roberson added. “Our goal every week was to come in and get seven more days, that’s all we wanted. And the seniors led the charge on that. They would get up the night before a game and they would cry their eyes out and say, ‘Please just give me one more week. One more week with my brothers.’ And we just kept grinding and we kept getting one more week one more week, until we got here - on top.”
Senior captains Dillon, Ty Evans, JC Sparks and Aidan Cullen not only led the team in their respective positions but were also key features in the newly bonded brotherhood of the Bears. And according to Sparks, it all stemmed from respect.
“I think the seniors really set a good example for the other classes and the brotherhood just started to take form,” Sparks said. “It was just more of us being leaders and more respecting our friends. I think that was the biggest thing, respecting each other and knowing we are all here for the same thing, the same goal.”
Dillon added that especially on the defensive line - which finished the season as one of the top lines in the state - trust, which leads to brotherhood, was a key component in their success this year.
“The love we have for each other is just incredible and I see those guys and they are my blood,” Dillon said. “Just trusting each other that we will always have your back definitely ties into what we do on the field.”
Of the 21 graduating seniors, four were top skill positions on offense, and the defense was led by a core of six seniors, who were key components in the Bears’ allowing just 13.3 points per game.
But coach Tom Pulford said it was the entire senior class, not just those who showed up on the stat sheet, that helped Palmer Ridge to its second straight state title.
“For some of these role players, their contribution to the team is made more in practice than it is during the game, and when you do that and you put the team in front of yourself, that isn’t always glorious. But it’s a special thing when everyone buys into their role and they do it with everything they’ve got,” Pulford said. “So I am proud of this senior class because we have some stars, we have some guys who do some great things, but we also have role players and guys who have really bought into their role and they did it very well.”
The Wednesday before the state championship CHSAA and Friends of Football invited the two 3A finalists to CSU Pueblo for a media day, and Pulford invited the entire senior football class to attend, saying that each senior is deserving of the opportunity, regardless if they are starters, on the scout team or other role players.
“We’ve got guys who have played in a backup role all year long, and I feel that they are just as deserving as the guys who have started 14 games,” Pulford said. “When we look at the young men in our program that put in the work to get to the point of contributing to this team, I want them to have the same experiences as the starters and captains.”
Now, Pulford said he and his coaching staff will complete exit interviews and evaluate how to pass this brotherhood down to the 2019 Palmer Ridge football team, battling for a three-peat.