Ernesto Lopez is ready to go to war in the trenches.
That’s the sort of game he anticipates when the Basalt High School football team plays Saturday at The Classical Academy to open the Class 2A state playoffs.
“That’s what I’m all for, so it should be a good game,” Lopez said. “They seem pretty big up front, but watching film we know we can play with these guys. As I said, every team is really good in the playoffs, so it doesn’t matter if they are good or bad, it’s just who wants to give it their all. And I’m for sure going to give it my all, thinking it might be my last football game.”
Lopez, a senior on the Basalt lines and arguably its most valuable player, will be a critical piece in trying to stop the Titans and sophomore running back Cade Palmer, who has rushed for 1,238 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. The Classical Academy (6-3) is the No. 8 seed in the 16-team playoff bracket, while Basalt (7-2) enters as the No. 9 seed.
Both playoff frequenters in recent years, the teams don’t have any recent history playing each other.
“Not a lot of teams make it over the mountain range, so it’s kind of fun to go against a Western Slope team. I’m sure it’s fun for them to come over to this side of the mountains and compete,” third-year TCA coach Justin Rich said. “They are clearly a very disciplined team and they have a very powerful run game. They are built for the playoffs.”
The last time the Titans played a team out of the current 2A Western Slope League was in the first round of the 2017 playoffs when they beat Aspen, 36-24. TCA lost in the second round that season, falling 21-14 to eventual state runner-up La Junta, before missing out on the playoffs in 2018. Rich called last season an “anomaly” and cited a few close losses that kept them from the postseason.
The Classical Academy rebounded in 2019, winning the 2A Tri-Peaks league. The Titans’ only league loss came in the regular-season finale last week against Woodland Park, a game played with bad field conditions because of recent weather. Their two other losses came in back-to-back non-league games against Sterling and Resurrection Christian, the tournament’s No. 2 and 3 seed, respectively.
“The kids know if we are ready to play and show up and do what we are supposed to be doing, we have a great opportunity against whoever it is,” Basalt coach Carl Frerichs said. “Classical Academy is definitely a talented team. They are definitely well coached and it should be a real exciting game.”
Frerichs compares Classical Academy to D’Evelyn, a team BHS has played a couple of times in recent years. The comparisons are especially noticeable on offense, with both teams using a similar run-based spread scheme. Basalt played D’Evelyn in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, losing 27-20 in the 8-9 matchup. They met again in the first round in 2018, Basalt winning as the No. 3 seed before losing to No. 6 seed Platte Valley in the second round.
The Longhorns, who have now made four straight playoff appearances, have never made the 2A state semifinals. The Titans last got there back in 2013 before losing to eventual state champion Coronado.
“It’s something new to think about and I’m excited to play them,” Lopez said. “We got to play every game at a time, so it doesn’t matter where we were placed. I love that 9 versus 8 — those are probably the best games out there in the first round, so obviously it should be a good game.”
If Lopez, who hopes to play college football but is only just now starting the recruiting process, can dominate up front like he has most of the season, the Longhorns will have a chance against the Titans. Along with Palmer at running back, Classical Academy has a talented sophomore quarterback in Sam Guilez, although he’s never really been tasked with trying to win the game with Palmer being so effective. Palmer’s older brother, senior Cole Palmer, is a standout on their lines and leads the team with 104 total tackles.
Saturday’s game is scheduled for a 3 p.m. kickoff on TCA’s field in Colorado Springs. The winner will play either No. 1 seed Rifle or No. 16 seed Englewood in the second round. Should Basalt win Saturday, it would host the second-round game regardless of who wins the other matchup.
“If this is going to be my last football game for Basalt, I should make it my most,” Lopez said. “I’m going to give it my all I can out on the field, and win or lose I love all these boys on the team. Basalt is always going to have a good spot in my heart.”