Moffat County-Meeker match-up heralds football return to Northwest Colorado
The feeling of Friday night lights was palpable in the confines of Meeker High School’s Starbuck Stadium as two nearby squads who haven’t faced each other on the varsity level in years squared off to begin a heavily anticipated football season.
Moffat County High School’s first game was a tough test of wills against the Meeker Cowboys, one in which the Bulldogs took a 36-14 defeat.
However, it wasn’t without plenty to be proud of for the blue and white.
Three plays after the opening kickoff, the first MoCo gridiron highlight of the season was official when senior Caleb Frink snatched an interception that he nearly ran all the way back to the end zone, stopped short at the Cowboy 6-yard line.
As the Bulldog offense took over, Frink took the hike in a wildcat formation, pounding his way forward to get the touchdown.
“It was pretty exciting to get that right off the bat,” Frink said with a smile after the game.
A PAT by fellow senior Chris Cox — a soccer player who’s found a niche lending his toe to a different sport — put the Bulldogs ahead 7-0 less than two minutes into the game.
It was a lead MoCo held for most of the first quarter, but a steady drive by the Cowboys showed Meeker wasn’t to be trifled with on their home turf. Late in the period, they at last got the TD on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Ryan Phelan. The resultant two-point conversion put them up 8-7.
The Bulldog offense, led by QB Ryan Peck, got a little yardage to follow, but were forced to punt, with Meeker responding quickly. The first quarter closed with a 38-yard reception, while the opening play of the second period saw the Cowboys go for the trick play, a reverse followed by a pass that Spud White reeled in and took 35 yards for another score.
The shutdown of the conversion left it 14-7, with the Dogs raring to go again with the pigskin. An array of carries and catches by Frink, Ethan Hafey and Donnie Quick got them down the field, with a pass interference call adding some progress. Once in the red zone, it looked like the Dogs might turn it over as the Cowboy defense dug in deep and an illegal procedure call also pushed them back.
Still, on 4th and goal with 10 yards to go, Peck found Frink right at the goal line, and all that was next was to take one more step for the TD catch, followed by another successful kick by Cox.
The Dogs didn’t have the same luck on the other end of the field with a 4th down involved; on 4th and 4, a Moffat County offsides call handed the 1st down to Meeker, and a few carries later, Phelan got the Cowboys back in the lead for good on an eight-yard draw play, though the two-point attempt fell flat to leave it 20-14.
The tally stayed on the scoreboard through halftime as the Bulldogs were unable to get another score.
While the energy may have been largely even in the first half, from the third quarter on it was almost all Meeker mojo on display.
The Bulldog drive ended as quickly as it started, with a fumble at midfield giving it to the Cowboys, who wasted little time with another TD, this time a 17-yard catch by White, and another twofer conversion to make it 28-14. Meeker’s offense was right back on the field after a MoCo three-and-out, though the Bulldogs stood tall to prevent the Cowboys from flipping the fourth.
However, another turnover was in store as Peck got back in the pocket deep in Bulldog territory only for a pass to go horribly awry, bouncing off his teammate’s hands into the clutches of Meeker defender Cooper Main, who bolted for the end zone for his team’s final TD with four minutes left in the third quarter.
Though neither squad would score from there, the pick scenario played out twice more as Bulldog receivers lost control of the ball and sent it straight to Meeker.
“That’s the way the ball bounces sometimes,” MCHS head coach Lance Scranton surmised. “We’re playing a quality team, so that’s what happens.”
Peck said he couldn’t help but blame himself for the pick-offs, a problem that also plagued him a year ago. The MoCo junior started all 10 games at quarterback in his sophomore season, amassing 1,130 throwing yards and eight touchdown passes — putting him in the top five of Colorado Preps’ 2020 returning QBs for the fall — a high interception rate severely crunched his passer rating.
“There’s always a better spot to put the ball. Everyone says they’re not on me, but they’re all on me,” he said of the three INT’s. “At the end of the day, they’re working their butts off to try and get open, so I’ve got to put it in better spots to make better plays.”
With exactly 100 combined yards rushing and throwing — including 12 yards on the ground — Peck went 88 passing yards for the night, 11 completions on 24 attempts, the longest of which was 22 yards to Frink.
Peck said he’s working to “play smart” this season, whether that means finding good targets or avoiding a sack by getting off a last-second shovel pass.
“Taking a five-yard loss could mean we don’t get a first down,” he said.
Frink had 55 yards from five catches as well as 98 rushing yards on 19 carries, his longest sprint 17 yards. Evan Atkin ran three times for a total 10 yards, while Ethan Hafey — the team’s top returning receiver with 153 yards in 2019, including a team best 78-yard TD reception last year against Coal Ridge — earned four catches for 26 yards and ran twice for a total of 18.
On the other side of the ball, a stalwart defense was led in tackles by Joe Campagna with 13 and 11 for Taran Teeter, each gaining eight solo. The two were the best of the bunch in hit numbers last year with 92 and 90, respectively, in the top five of 2A Western Slope League players.
Campagna — who had two tackles for loss against Meeker — was also 2019’s sacks leader, credited with 5.5, ranked fourth in the conference.
Following in tackle totals were Logan Hafey with six, and Ethan Hafey and Frink each with five.
The game was perhaps most memorable for Frink, the only Moffat County player who has faced Meeker at the varsity level, having seen the Cowboys as part of the Grand Valley roster, both teams in the 1A Western Slope.
“I’ve played these guys for a couple years now, and I feel like we could have beat them, but some plays didn’t go our way,” he said. “It was a good game, and we both fought hard. We’re a pretty young team, so this was a good one to get out of the way and get the first-game jitters out.”
Frink’s skills as a safety helped him commit early to Colorado School of Mines, boasting a junior season at Grand Valley that saw him rush for 221 yards and provide 73 tackles and two interceptions for the Cardinal defense.
The season opener was ultimately a positive experience, Scranton said, noting that playing against a powerhouse opponent like Meeker strengthens his players far more than an early win over a middling team.
“Meeker’s probably going to run the table this year, and we’re only going to get better from this,” he said. “Everyone hates losing, but if we can learn something from this, then it’s not a loss.”
More specifically, the lessons to be learned are receivers getting control of their catches and completing the job defensively on 3rd and 4th down situations.
“Them turning those into 1st downs, that really killed us tonight,” Scranton said. “They took some chances, we took some chances, but it didn’t go our way. Still got some work to do, but that’s why we’re out here.”
The short and sweet fall season approved by CHSAA immediately jumps from non-conference play to the league slate, and the Bulldogs’ newly aligned 2A West schedule gets going Friday, Oct. 16 at home as Moffat County meets Englewood at the Bulldog Proving Grounds for the home opener.
The two teams are each 0-1, with the Pirates narrowly missing the W in their first game against La Junta, downed 22-19.
Scranton expects the home advantage will help players slightly, though what he and the rest of the coaching staff have emphasized is an attitude of gratitude that the season is even happening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am just glad we’re playing football,” he said.
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