Grizzlies double down on defense
HIGHLANDS RANCH - ThunderRidge linebacker John Wood was doing what he had been told last Friday night at Shea Stadium.
Wood was all over the field in leading a strong Grizzlies defensive effort that sparked a 21-17 victory over Grandview in a Class 5A state quarterfinal playoff game.
The win for the top-seeded Grizzlies (11-1) moves them into the semifinals against Highlands Ranch neighbor and fourth-seeded Valor Christian (10-2) 7 p.m. Friday night at Shea Stadium.
ThunderRidge’s maligned defensive unit had surrendered 90 points and 957 total yards in playoff wins over Westminster and Cherry Creek and the Grizzlies’ coaches made sure the players heard what was expected of them going up against Grandview’s potent offense.
“Coaches yelled at us all week to run to the ball,” said Wood. “We had a good week of practice and when we are good everybody is running to the ball. Like against Cherry Creek, the 56 points we gave up, we were not running to the ball.”
Wood was the leader but he had plenty of help from his teammates that included among others Sam Pauling, Michael Stanley and Jeff Helblig.
“It was a great defensive effort,” said ThunderRidge coach Joe Johnson. “John Wood had an unbelievable game. I’m really proud of our defensive staff and the kids. We’ve had it really tough for the last couple week and they really stepped up. We put in some new stuff and they executed.”
Pauling led the Grizzlies with 16 tackles. Helblig had seven tackles and one of the two ThunderRidge interceptions.
Grandview, which lost to ThunderRidge 34-20 on Sept. 13, was held below its 33.6 scoring average and the Wolves managed to gain only 77 yards rushing and 226 yards of total offense.
Two ThunderRidge turnovers helped Grandview jump to a 10-0 first quarter advantage but the Grizzlies rallied and had a 21-17 lead with 3:11 to play after a clutch 66-yard TD drive.
Then it was time for the defense to rise up again.
With 1:41 showing on the clock and the Wolves facing a fourth and 11 from their own 33-yard line, Wood sacked quarterback Reece Weber for an 15-yard loss.
“I though he got away from me for a minute,” said Wood. “My head was down and all of a sudden he’s down and the crowd went crazy. It’s scary trying to stop that guy.”
Weber is an elusive senior who despite heavy pressure threw for 149 yards and one touchdown. But he was held to minus 34 yards rushing.
ThunderRidge lost two yards on four attempts after Wood’s sack and Grandview got the ball back on downs at their own 20-yard line with 42 seconds to play.
The game ended when Weber’s desperation pass was intercepted at the goal line. Weber was injured on the play and had to be helped off the field.
“We have to be better, sharper offensively,” said Johnson. “We had some opportunities. Every time I think we have it going on offense, we kind of slip up and when I think we are having trouble on defense, we step up.
“It’s the nature of coaching this age group. I guess the one thing is we have a tremendous will to win.”
That was evident on the Grizzlies 14-play winning touchdown drive that took 5:06 and gave ThunderRidge a four-point lead.
ThunderRidge converted two fourth downs on the drive and quarterback Brody Westmoreland connected with Mark Hopper on a key 14-yard third down pass.
“We knew they were going to try to get to the edge to stop us,” said Westmoreland. “We had sprint throw protection, I got a good block from Steve (Ray) and Hopper came open.”
Ray ran for 139 yards and one touchdown. Jake Hand scored twice, including the 5-yard game-winning score. Westmoreland ran for 55 yards and completed four of 10 passes for 86 yards as the Grizzlies finished with 363 yards total offense.
Westmoreland was knocked out of the game late in the first quarter. He didn’t play for one series but Matt Malin, who also played in the secondary, replaced him and directed an 80-yard scoring drive that trimmed Grandview’s lead to 10-7 with 9:51 left in the second quarter.
“Matt came in and led the team very well,” said Westmoreland.
“I’m proud of him. Our team just finds a way to win.”
Reece threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Montgomery on fourth down as Grandview put together a time-consuming, 69-yard, 14-play scoring drive to start the second half and grab a 17-14 lead.
Tanner Gentry’s 26-yard interception return and Tanner Hubbard’s 37-yard field goal and two extra-point kicks accounted for the other Grandview points.