SIX-MAN FOOTBALL PREVIEW – CHAMPIONSHIP
BY: KERRY SHERMAN
For the third time in four seasons, Stratton (13-0) and Fleming (10-2) will meet in the six-man title game. Sure, the first two were when the Eagles were still part of the athletic co-op with Liberty, but the current roster still feels the sting of those two losses to the Wildcats.
Fleming entered the 2019 title game undefeated and Stratton/Liberty went in with one loss. In one of the wildest closing sequences, the Wildcats took a 28-27 lead on a snap over the head of the punter that would go on the board as a safety. They would still need a fourth down stop to preserve the win by that final tally.
The following season, which was shortened due to COVID, saw both teams enter the championship contest with unblemished records. Stratton/Liberty led 14-8 in the first quarter, before Fleming went on to score 20 unanswered points to close the half. They would go on to hand head coach John King his fourth state title in a decade, 60-28.
The teams met in Fleming in the regular season finale this year, and it was all Stratton. Alex Cruz put the Eagles on the board with a 25-yard rushing touchdown and added another 25-yard TD on a scoop-and-score, as part of a 32-0 first quarter. The lead would grow to 53-0 by the half, and Stratton went on to a 53-13 victory.
Cruz finished that contest with 50 yards and two scores on five carries, and Cyler Notter added another 50 yards on the ground. He hauled in a short touchdown pass from Charlie Tagtmeyer, who also connected with Brody Webb on a TD. Tagtmeyer also recorded a pair of fumble recoveries in the victory.
Braylen Feather went down to an injury early in that game, giving extra reps to sophomore back-up Derek Houser, who completed all four of his passing attempts for 48 yards and a TD. Blake Feather ran for 37 yards and a touchdown, while Nolan Japp led with 47 yards.
Stratton’s run through the postseason began with a 46-14 opening round victory over Prairie, followed by a 70-16 romp at Eads in the quarterfinals. That game was knotted at 16-all just about three minutes in. Last week, the Eagles raced out to a 46-0 first half lead, making it 12 running clocks in as many on field contests. They would allow two second half touchdowns, but still won 46-13.
On the season, Cruz has rushed for 1514 yards and 40 touchdowns, and added 15 catches for 313 yards and four more scores. Including his defensive TD against Fleming during the regular season, Cruz has 45 total touchdowns this season. That has him tied for 19th most in a season in state history. He’s one back of a group that includes former Stratton/Liberty standout Jaret Lichty and current San Francisco 49er, Christian McCaffrey. He needs four touchdowns to climb into the top 10. Last year’s six-man player of the year, Cade Mitchek, is tied for ninth with 49. The record of 77 was set by Woodlin’s Harold Klausner in 2005.
Notter enters the title game just 96 yards shy of a 1000-yard season of his own. He has scored 20 touchdowns on the ground and his three receiving are tied with Webb right behind Cruz. Stockton Fye has 478 yards and seven touchdowns in a reserve role, and Avery Archuleta has 441 yards and seven touchdowns. Tagtmeyer has only thrown 50 passes on the year, completing 29 for 669 and 10 touchdowns against only one interception.
Webb leads the defense with 88 tackles, while Notter and Dawson Thompson each have 78. Freshman Von Isenbart checks in with 64, and Joe Shean is at 62, despite missing three full games and being limited in others due to injury. Cruz (60), Tagtmeyer (52), and Archuleta (45) round out the leaders.
Notter and Cruz cause problems from their defensive end spots with their speed, racking up 18 and 10 sacks, respectively. Notter has forced four fumbles, recovered four, and blocked three punts. Cruz has three fumble recoveries and three blocked punts. Tagtmeyer and Webb each have six interceptions. On special teams, Carlos Sanza has made 62 of 67 PAT kicks. The Eagles have scored nine non-offensive touchdowns, four by Tagtmeyer and three by Notter.
Fleming bounced back from the loss to Stratton in late-October to handle Hanover (58-6) in the first round and Genoa-Hugo (66-30) in the quarters. Things got very interesting in their semifinal clash with Granada last week. After trailing 38-16 at the half, the Wildcats would still trail by 16 midway through the fourth. They scored twice in the closing minutes to send the game to OT tied at 60, converted on fourth and goal in overtime, and then got a stop on the Bobcats’ possession to claim the 68-60 victory.
Braylen Feather threw for 429 yards and five touchdowns in that offensive explosion, and Japp added 158 yards and three rushing scores. Travis Johnson provided one of the biggest plays of the contest by blocking a kick, allowing the Wildcats to eventually force the bonus session.
The Wildcats have been more balanced on offense this year, running for 2356 yards and 40 touchdowns, while also throwing for 1696 yards and 29 tallies. Braylen Feather has been responsible for 1606 of the passing yards and 26 touchdowns with six interceptions. He’s thrown exactly three times as many passes as Tagtmeyer, with 85 completions.
Japp leads the rushing attack with 1060 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Blake Feather has added 631 yards and eight scores. Kolten Houser has 11 touchdowns in his 39 carries. Five players have at least 12 catches and more than 200 yards receiving. Wyatt Cochran leads in both categories with 29 receptions and 516 yards. His 10 receiving touchdowns are also tops. Harry Harms is next with 18/344/5, while Japp (14/237/3) and Blake Feather (13/298/3) have proven to be weapons out of the backfield. K. Houser rounds out the group with 12 catches, 227 yards, and five scores.
Blake Feather and K. Houser have both gone over the century mark in tackles, racking up 106 and 105, respectively. Matix Haney (69), Japp (57), Cochran (40), and Braylen Feather (34) complete the top six on the team. K. Houser and Haney each have 17 tackles for loss, and Cochran has recorded 13.
The defense has picked off 16 passes this season, 10 by Braylen Feather and five by Japp. K. Houser has recovered four of the 15 fumbles collected by the Wildcats, while Johnson and Mason Mollohan each have two. Haney (four) and Blake Feather (three) have forced a combined seven of those fumbles. Haney has added a blocked punt and a blocked kick. The team has two of each. Japp is the owner of three of Fleming’s five non-offensive touchdowns, and Blake Feather has converted 40 of 61 kicks.
This is the sixth straight year that Stratton, either on its own or as part of the co-op, has been in the title game. They won the 2013 title as part of Liberty-Stratton, and again as Stratton/Liberty in 2018. Those wins were over Hi-Plains and Kit Carson. The co-op also finished second to Peetz in 2017 and then Stratton lost to Cheyenne Wells last year. The Eagles played for six consecutive titles in eight-man from 1992-97. They won four straight, lost in 96, and won again in 97. They also won in 2002, and then dropped a 47-46 triple overtime game to Granada in 2006. The Eagles also have an eight-man runner-up in 1987, and a Class A runner-up to Limon in 1976.
Fleming has won the crown in each of its last four championship game appearances, adding wins over Otis and Eads in 2011 and 2012 to the two wins in 2019 and 2020. They fell to Idalia in 2010, and to Crow Valley back in 1993. They also own a runner-up in eight-man, dating back to 1964.
Fleming went 4-1 in games against the Stratton/Liberty co-op, but Stratton’s win earlier this year has the Eagles 1-0 as a stand-alone program.
Stratton is coached by Jesse McConnell, Trey Thompson, and Christian Hornung, all former Stratton players. For Fleming, John King is assisted by Larry Unrein, Tanner Serrato, Mark Bauder, and Jaxon King (John’s son). Serrato and King both played for the head coach during their days as Fleming Wildcats.
The championship game will be played on Friday, November 25th at the Thunderbowl on the campus of CSU-Pueblo. Kick-off is slated for 1pm.