LITTLETON, Colo. (BVM) — The 2020 Colorado high school football season has been far and away the most unusual one Ron Woitalewicz has experienced in his 25 years of coaching at Dakota Ridge. But it could also turn out to be the best one yet for the Eagles, who head into the playoffs this weekend as the No. 1 seed in Class 4A.
After enduring an offseason filled with uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dakota Ridge and every other program in the state was led to believe it wouldn’t be allowed to play until the spring with the Colorado High School Activities Association deciding in August to move the start of football season to early March as part of a revised schedule which was split into four seasons: A, B, C and D. That changed in mid-September when Gov. Jared Polis signed off on allowing high school football games to take place despite the ongoing coronavirus and the CHSAA Board of Directors approved a plan which would allow schools and districts to choose whether they would play in the fall (Season A) or the spring (Season C).
Dakota Ridge, like the majority of schools in the state, picked the fall.
“All of the sudden it was like hey, you’re going to get to play,” said Woitalewicz, who’s in his 20th year as the team’s head coach. “Now each day you kind of wake up and hope that you get to keep playing every day and that something doesn’t happen where you get shut down and get quarantined.”
Fortunately for the Eagles (6-0), they’ve made it through their shortened regular season (cut down from 10 games to six) unscathed thanks in large part to the leadership of a group of 30 seniors who have kept the team not only focused, but also safe.
“A lot of credit to those kids,” Woitalewicz said. “They have given up a lot of their social life to make sure they’re not going out and hanging in large groups or with people they don’t know which could put themselves and our team in a bad situation.”
By giving themselves the best possible chance to stay on the field, the Eagles are also giving themselves a shot at history with just three more games standing between them and their first-ever state title. Dakota Ridge heads into the postseason without a loss and has dominated its first six opponents by a combined score of 310-32. The Eagles’ ability to put up a lot of points is something Woitalewicz expected, but the performance of his defense has been surprising.
“I didn’t know we’d be as dominant as we are,” said Woitalewicz, whose defense is allowing only 5.3 points per game. “I think one of the keys for us is we’ve got some good speed defensively and we’ve been able to utilize that. We’ve been able to eliminate the big play and our ability to create turnovers and put our offense in good situations has helped as well. It’s probably exceeded our expectations. We knew that we would be pretty good, but I didn’t really see this coming.”
Senior noseguard Spencer Hardy has been the biggest difference-maker on Dakota Ridge’s dominant defensive unit. Hardy’s 25 tackles are tied with senior linebacker Colin Stuhr for second-most on the team behind senior linebacker Steve Reyes’ 30, but Hardy also has a team-leading seven sacks in six games.
“He’s definitely the catalyst to what we do,” Woitalewicz said. “It seems like he’s always playing in the backfield of the opponent all the time. He’s a disrupter. He either forces people to double team him, which frees up some other guys to be able to fly to the ball and make tackles or if you try to block him one on one, he’s usually in the backfield trying to disrupt something. Between size, strength and quickness, he’s a pretty dynamic player for us.”
The Eagles have some dynamic players on the other side of the ball as well. Senior quarterback Ben Gultig commands an offense that features plenty of playmakers on the ground and through the air. Colorado University commit Charlie Offerdahl (428 rushing yards, 11 TDs) leads a ground attack that churns out 218 yards per game. Sophomore Noah Triplett is second on the team with six rushing touchdowns and third in rushing yards (281) while Gultig has proven to be a dual threat with his 350 rushing yards and two rushing scores to go along his 920 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air. The majority of Gultig’s passes have found the hands of senior wide receivers Mason Galbreath, Max Hart and Joey Cavallaro, who have combined for 42 receptions, 726 yards and nine TDs.
“If you’re a defensive coordinator, you kind of have to pick your poison,” Woitalewicz said. “If you want to try to take the passing game away, we have the ability to run the ball. If you want to crowd the box, we have some guys that can hurt you on the outside. … We try to be as balanced as we can.”
Opponents didn’t have an answer for Dakota Ridge during the regular season. As a result, the Eagles’ starters have yet to play four quarters of football because they’ve forced a running clock by the third quarter in all six of their contests. The blowouts have benefitted Dakota Ridge in terms of staying healthy and finding playing time for younger players, but Woitalewicz is ready to see how his players respond to their first challenge of the season, which could come Saturday in a first-round playoff matchup with No. 8-seeded Montrose (4-2)
“Our experience will help,” Woitalewicz said. “They played in big, pressure games a year ago in (the playoffs). The first time we get hit in the mouth and the first time we kind of fall behind, how are we going to respond? I think our senior leadership and the experience is going to help us.”
The playoffs are a round shorter than a year ago when Dakota Ridge won two playoff games and reached the state semifinals as a No. 6 seed before falling to No. 2 Broomfield on a field goal in the final seconds. Two wins this year would put the Eagles in the state final for the first time since 2004 when they finished as the runner-up. But Woitalewicz believes this year’s team is the best he’s ever had, and the Eagles are aiming higher than just another berth in the title game.
“A lot of these kids are three-year starters who have played since sophomore year, so I think with that senior leadership, they really have their eye on the prize,” Woitalewicz said. “They’ve been dedicated and focused even during this crazy time. That’s what they’ve got their eyes and their goals set on and I think that’s what drives them every day now.”