A quick glance at Valor Christian’s 2012 record suggests that the season has been pretty smooth sailing.
Games won by 40-plus points have been the norm for the No. 4 Eagles (11-2) over the past two months, but if you rewind the calendar back to August, you’ll find a team that was reeling after a pair of tough defeats.
Valor Christian moved up to the Class 5A ranks this year and kicked off that move in grand style, hosting Mullen in a game broadcast on ESPN3. The Eagles were pushed around physically by the Mustangs and wound up losing the game by a single point, 14-13.
A week later, the Eagles once again wound up on the wrong side of a one-point game, this time dropping a 21-20 overtime decision at Bingham, Utah. To compound matters, senior quarterback Luke Del Rio broke his hand.
Luckily for Valor Christian, and ultimately unlucky for the next 11 opponents on the schedule, Del Rio didn’t break his throwing hand.
Since the Bingham loss, the Eagles have overpowered each and every opponent on the schedule; all by 40-plus points with the exception of Arapahoe, where the margin of victory was a mere 31 points.
“After the first two weeks, we could’ve said `OK, there goes our season,’” said Del Rio, who has completed 167 of 235 passes (71 percent) for 2,186 yards with 28 touchdowns and just three interceptions. “We could’ve gotten down … but we fought back, corrected things that we needed to.”
Last week, in the first-ever meeting between Highlands Ranch-area schools, Valor Christian earned a spot in the 5A championship game with a resounding 49-3 victory over top-seeded ThunderRidge. The Eagles will take on No. 3 Cherokee Trail (12-1), which knocked off No. 2 Ralston Valley 17-10 in the other semifinal, at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 1 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
“It feels incredible,” Del Rio said of his team reaching the state championship game. “The amount of time and effort we’ve put in and the preparation; we couldn’t ask for better coaches. They prepare us beyond belief and it’s so nice to have all of that pay off and you’re finally going to state.”
Del Rio, who moved to Colorado early in 2012 after his dad, Jack, accepted the defensive coordinator position with the Denver Broncos, has certainly played an instrumental role in the Eagles’ success.
He’s far from the only player to make an impact, though. Defensively the Eagles have been stout all year, with linebackers Justin Falls and Carlos Aviles flying around the field. Eric Lee, just a sophomore, has been solid in the defensive backfield and up front, Stanley Gilbert has taken over games, like he did against the Grizzlies in the semifinals.
“It’s been a real collective effort on the defensive end,” said Valor Christian head coach Brent Vieselmeyer, whose Valor Christian teams won a 3A state title in 2009 and 4A titles in 2010 and 2011. “The kids have put in a lot of work and it’s nice to see it pay off.”
And then there’s junior Christian McCaffrey.
McCaffrey is arguably the best player in the state and, in the last two rounds of the playoffs, has scored 11 touchdowns. On the season, McCaffrey has gained 1,264 yards on just 128 carries (a staggering 9.9 yards per carry) with 22 touchdowns. He also leads the team in receptions (51), receiving yards (643) and receiving touchdowns (14), in addition to playing defensive back and returning punts and kickoffs.
“Christian is amazing,” Del Rio said. “Every time he touches the ball he has the ability to score.”
When the ball isn’t going to McCaffrey, Darryl Hawkins has proven he’s more than capable of carrying the offensive load. Hawkins has 588 yards and scored nine touchdowns this season. Wide receiver Alex Ulmer (41-564-6) and tight end Chaz Polson (38-488-4) have produced whenever their number has been called.
Despite losing running back/defensive back Cameron Gray (450 rushing yards, six touchdowns; 38 tackles, six sacks and one interception) late in the regular season to a broken leg, Valor Christian’s offense hasn’t skipped a beat in the postseason, scoring 40-plus points in each of the four games it has played.
“Everyone is doing a great job of executing,” Del Rio said. “We’ve had points during the season where we’d go through a quarter and not be sharp, but in the playoffs, guys have been locked in.”