Pueblo East High School entered the fourth quarter of its first ever football state title game tied at 14 with Rifle. Had the Eagles failed to soar, many would have understood; making it to state and playing at Dutch Clark was historical.
The journey to the 3A state championship game put the Eagles through a gauntlet chock-full of adversity, struggle and doubt.
East started the season 2-0 but stumbled, losing three of four bring its record to 3-3. The 34-20 loss in the Cannon game against South left players and coaches disappointed. But to end the season, East recovered the pieces of its broken the state title game.
In that final 15 minutes of the 2014 season, Eagles coach David Ramirez and his boys made it look easy, dismantling their opponent with ease and taking a well-deserved spot in Pueblo football history.
Smiles graced the faces of coaches and players and a collective sigh of relief was let out by many. It was over. They were champs. All the hours and practices for the distinction as best in the state came true.
The accounts of the road traveled show the triumph and struggles of the 3A championship team.
Coming off a 7-5 season in 2013, championship or bust wasn’t the motto for the East Eagles. This program never took a whiff of a football championship game. In 2014, however, something was in the air. A different vibe existed among players and coaches when East headed to the Colorado State University-Pueblo camp.
“We felt like we left the CSU-Pueblo camp as one of the better teams,” Ramirez said. “Our group of guys were willing to work hard and were goofy when necessary and ready to get serious when necessary. We felt strong about this group.”
Various teams across the state enter the season with title hopes. With the performance of East at the camp, it was understandable. Confidence swelled and players showed it to start the season.
A 41-25 dismantling of eventual 4A state runner-up Longmont in their first game left the Eagles confidence sky high and ready to tackle the remainder of the season. The start didn’t go as expected, however.
CANNON GAME & STRUGGLES
The game no one wants to lose. A heated rivalry that South won in 2013 left the Eagles with a bitter taste in their mouths carried over to 2014. A year worth of bragging rights and a cannon the winner gets to sport while the loser listens to the boom in agony. This season, it still booms black.
“It was a frustrating loss, we knew we were better than how we performed,” Ramirez said. “We didn’t play our best football that night.”
The loss brought East to 2-1. It didn’t sit well with East fans and the defeat irked the team. There were no moral victories September 5th, nor were there in the back-to-back losses to Discovery Canyon and Pueblo West.
After starting 2-0, the Eagles were a modest 3-3. The .500 record temporarily demoralized the team. In the locker room after the loss to Discovery Canyon, eyes were glued to the ground, a disturbing silence occupied the room and questions surround the Eagles and their future.
What appeared to be a dream season swiftly became a typical year for East football. During that uncomfortable silence, Ramirez was fuming inside about the effort from his Eagles. Once he cooled off, Ramirez realized this was a moment of clarity.
Ramirez made certain all eyes were on him during his succinct speech. A nine-word message was all it took to turn around the season for East.
“We’re not going to lose another game this season,” Ramirez said. Players and coaches discussed what they needed to do to improve their season.
From there, the path was clear.
THE TURNAROUND/WINNING STREAK
East lost its final non-league game to Pueblo West 27-21. Third time was the charm for the Eagles and three losses was plenty for Ramirez’s team to gather inspiration to build a championship team.
Once league games began, East dissected opponents week after week; four straight games of 40-plus points, two straight 40 point victories and four games with a running clock. The Eagles gave up just 12 points in league play while amassing 183.
The Eagles played dominating football and knew they were headed down the road to glory.
“We played some damn good football throughout our league games,” Ramirez said. “We wanted to make a statement heading to the playoffs.”
A switch was flipped and the Eagles became immaculate, winning the league title and making a bold statement in the process. Carrying that same flame throughout the playoffs was the challenge holding East from its first state title.
STATE TITLE RUN
A year ago, Ramirez and his wife had their son Miles — a fitting name to how far the Eagles traveled down the road to success. The birth of a child is already a blessing, but Ramirez felt like Miles provided an extra boost to his Eagles in 2014.
“He was our good luck charm,” Ramirez said. “To have that peace and happiness in our life, it carried over into some things within the professional aspect.”
East needed luck for its first title. Distractions grew as the wins compiled.
East’s first state title game at Dutch Clark, facing the No.1 3A team in the state who defeated the Eagles early in the season, social media chirpings, buzz around town and in the halls. Asking teenagers to focus on one game at a time was a near impossible task, but, hey, they’d done it all season.
“It was a little bit of a challenge,” Ramirez said. “But we told them ‘the ball is the same size, the lines on the field are the same. Just go out there and have fun.’ We wanted them to know they’ve done this for years and trust the work they’ve done. The hard stuff was done, just go out and play the damn game.”
A 14-game season and enduring the rigors of class and studying seemed daunting at the time. With the goal in sight, however, no obstacle was too large.
Rifle ended East’s best season ever in 2012 with a 56-6 rout at Dutch Clark in the semifinals. Two years later, the Eagles dealt the devastating blow to the Bears.
Stifling defense from Kevin Ribarich, Danny Martin’s second-half performance, and a gritty battle won by East culminated the season.
The clock hit 0:00, players and coaches shook hands and the Eagles realized what they accomplished. 30-14, East wins. Ramirez let out a laugh of relief before talking about how it felt to earn East’s first football title.
“It was better than I could have imagined,” Ramirez said. “It affirms a lot of the things you’ve done as a coach and the philosophies we’ve instilled at East.”
The eight-game winning streak to end the season confirmed that the Eagles had the makings of champions, and at the same time learned an invaluable lesson in overcoming adversity and turning it into gold.
It’s a story the 2014 East Eagles can recite for years.