Uptick in rushing helps lead Hayden Tigers to playoffs
6 victories: 1,380 yards, 281 carries, 6.22 yards per carry
4 defeats: 281 yards, 89 carries, 3.16 yards per carry
Steamboat Springs — Things were rough, Hayden High School football coach Shawn Baumgartner readily admitted.
It wasn’t that his team, which plays at 1 p.m. today in the Class 1A state quarterfinals, had been terrible.
The squad lost three of its first four games, all three one-score defeats. Two came against larger-class opponents and the third to defending 1A champion Yuma.
“The wind is definitely out of our sails,” Baumgartner said at the time.
Hayden responded to the 3-1 record by winning four of its next five games, a streak that earned the team second place in the Western Slope League and the No. 9 seed in the playoffs.
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The most obvious difference from one week to the next: The Tigers’ running game, which exploded with 315 yards against Paonia to move the team to 2-3 on the season.
If the Tigers want to upset No. 1 Wray in Hayden today, the trend of a powerful running game likely will need to continue.
Hayden doesn’t rely on its rushing attack alone. Quarterback Graig Medvesk has started two whole years after receiving spot varsity time as a sophomore.
He’s Hayden’s primary weapon, having gained nearly 2,000 yards through the air and on the ground.
“He just keeps getting better and better with those throws,” senior running back and receiver Ben Williams observed this week.
But it’s that rushing attack that opens up the offense for Medvesk and the rest of his weapons.
When Hayden’s at its best, it’s moving the ball with the quarterback’s big plays and big gains by a stable of running backs.
The proof is in the numbers. In four losses this season, the team had gained 281 yards on 89 carries on the ground, an average gain per play of 3.16 yards.
In six wins, it’s gained 1,380 on 224 carries, or 6.22 yards per play.
Since dropping a 28-21 home game to Middle Park, Hayden has been held to fewer than 100 yards only once. That game was a lopsided loss to powerful Hotchkiss, the No. 2 seed in the 1A playoffs that also plays today.
The Tigers turned to their tailbacks for big yards during the biggest wins of the year, against Paonia and Rangely and last weekend in a playoff win against Monte Vista.
Back in the trenches
Some of Hayden’s improvement has been thanks to the competition. The team gained 272 yards, its second-highest total of the season, against a severely undermanned Rangely squad, and tacked on 171 more in a rout of Lake County.
Much more of the improvement has come about because of a maturation of the team’s key players in the running game and a return from injury of several other cornerstone athletes.
Ryan Domson, for instance, entered the season an unproven sophomore. He finished fifth on the team in rushing during his freshman season but was expected to carry much more of the load.
He gained 52 yards in a Week 1 win against Holyoke, but he managed positive yardage just once in the three-game losing streak that ensued.
Finally, he broke out big against Paonia and Rangely.
“He’s gained a lot of confidence,” Medvesk said. “The more he played, the better he ran.”
In last week’s playoff win against Monte Vista, he notched 81 yards on nine carries, scoring three of his season’s seven touchdowns.
“He’s really come along. We were hoping it would be a breakout year for him, and with each game, you can see so much more confidence in him,” Baumgartner said. “At the beginning of the year, he wouldn’t have scored those three touchdowns.”
He had a lot of help.
Early in the season, the Tigers were forced to shuffle their lineup on a game-by-game basis to account for injuries.
Treyben Letlow played three positions, as did Williams.
Jake Hockett and Brian Hoza, fullbacks to start the season, were pushed into the offensive line to help replace senior Justin Moon, who came down with mononucleosis just two weeks before the season.
“It sucks sitting out. Not during practice, but big time during the games,” Moon said. “I lost all my strength. It took a month to get most of it back.”
Sophomore Will Valora re-entered the lineup in the offensive line midway through the season, and Moon returned late in the game against Middle Park.
Williams, also shifting between positions, ended up with Domson in the backfield.
Hoza went down with a season-ending injury, but the returns and realignments helped push the squad forward.
“As we started to get guys back, we got that continuity up there with those front five, and that helps so much,” Baumgartner said. “That’s been the biggest part of it, just getting everyone back.
“We also changed a few things in our backfield, got out of a pistol set and went to a more traditional look to give us a little more speed.”
Time to run
In Wray, Hayden will find the best offense Class 1A football has to offer. Eagles quarterback Brett Vlasin has racked up nearly 2,000 yards through the air and 23 touchdowns.
Wray can score often, and it can score quickly.
Hayden, despite being a big-play team all season, could find that its best defense against that could end up being long drives.
Now more adept at moving the ball on the ground than they’ve been all season, the Tigers could be ready to do just that.
“We were able to run the ball well against Paonia, and that was our breakout game,” Baumgartner said. “That was our turning point, and we got our running game going.”
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