As he looked at his players knelt before him, moments after their close loss to Ralston Valley, Mountain Vista football coach Garrett Looney’s words were bold — yet warranted.
“If you continue to play like that the rest of the season, you will be playing in the semis,” Looney told his troops after their 13-7 loss to the Mustangs in both teams’ season opener Aug. 18 at a jam-packed Halftime Help Stadium.
Looney was referring to the Class 5A state playoffs, of course.
It was a bold statement because this is August — the state playoffs are still several turns of the calendar away.
But the fifth-year coach’s proclamation was also warranted because the Golden Eagles, if not for getting in their own way, easily could have beaten the Mustangs, who entered the game ranked No. 5 in Colorado and were a semifinal team themselves nine months ago.
Looney was also entitled to such a declaration because what Vista was able to do in its 2023 debut — stand toe to toe with a state power — likely wasn’t an anomaly.
That’s because all the offensive weaponry from last year’s 7-4 Golden Eagles team is back this season, including junior quarterback Austyn Modrzewski, who received an offer from the University of Kentucky of the Southeastern Conference in June. Modrzewski’s 3,327 passing yards last season were second-best in Colorado and his 34 passing touchdowns were tied for third.
Also back from last season are the Golden Eagles’ top three receivers (Sean Conway, Jakhai Mack and Ja’pree Jennings) and three leading rushers (Chris Smith, Jack Blais and Modrzewski).
“It’s super early. We have to keep getting better,” Looney said. “But I know this group has the talent to be really good come playoff time.”
So, why didn’t all that offensive firepower produce more points on Aug. 18? Well, don’t let Vista’s seven points fool you — the Golden Eagles can and will score this year. They simply shot themselves in the foot on way too many occasions against Ralston Valley.
Consider: Vista made it inside the Mustangs’ 37-yard line six times but only came away with points on one of those drives — a 3-yard touchdown pass from Blais, after he received a pitch from Modrzewski, to a falling-down Conway in the back of the end zone to make the score 13-7 right before halftime.
The two most soul-crushing drives for Vista occurred in the second half, when a touchdown and an extra point would’ve given the Golden Eagles the lead — perhaps for good.
On Vista’s first possession of the third quarter, a swing pass from Modrzewski to Blais moved the ball to Ralston Valley’s 5-yard line. However, three consecutive negative plays — of 5, 9 and 14 yards — backed up the Golden Eagles to the 33-yard line, where they were forced to punt.
Two series later, a Modrzewski-to-Grant Hansen connection set up Vista at Ralston Valley’s 6-yard line, but the Golden Eagles stalled there and eventually turned the ball over on downs.
“We just made too many mistakes,” Looney said. “When you play a really good, well-coached team, those mistakes are going to kill you. You can get away with it some weeks, but not against a team like Ralston Valley.”
Said the 16-year-old Modrzewski, who completed 24 of 41 passes for 235 yards: “Obviously, it’s Week 0. We knew there were going to be mistakes. It’s more about how we bounce back from them. It’s going to hurt inside for a couple days, but we just need to watch the film, learn from it and move on to next week.”
The Golden Eagles were exceptional on defense save for three plays — a 48-yard pass and a pair of 42-yard receptions, one of which went for a touchdown — which accounted for half of Ralston Valley’s total offensive production (265 yards).
Meanwhile, Vista ran 22 more plays than the Mustangs but watched as promising drive after promising drive sputtered.
“I think our defense showed tonight that we can play with anybody,” Looney said. “[Ralston Valley] is a big, physical football team and we were right there with them at the end. Bottom line, our offense made too many mistakes. We had dropped passes, penalties. If we clean those things up, we’re going to be right there. The kids just have to believe that, and I think they do.”
Indeed, if the Golden Eagles can stay healthy throughout the season, play cleaner football and capitalize on opportunities, they may very well find themselves in the state semifinals.
And they might not stop there.