Roaring Fork defense smothers Tigers |

Roaring Fork defense smothers Tigers

G. Sean Kelly
GSPI Sports Editor
Post Independent Photo/Kelley CoxRoaring Fork's James Leonard (44) follows the blocking of teammate Garrett Jammeron (64) as La Junta's Thomas Baird (60) pursues during their Class 2A State Playoff game Saturday at Roaring Fork High School. Leonard scored two touchdowns and rushed for 168 yards in the Rams' 27-3 victory.

CARBONDALE ” The Rams didn’t make it easy on themselves.

Roaring Fork overcame almost three quarters of turnovers and penalties to upend La Junta 27-3 in the opening round of the Class 2A football playoffs Saturday at Roaring Fork High School.

Rams running back James Leonard scored on an 85-yard run late in the third quarter to give Roaring Fork (10-0) a 14-3 lead and break open a game that was tight on the scoreboard, though not on the field.

“The line got pissed,” Leonard said of his blockers. “They take it personally when the backs aren’t getting the yards, and, as a result, they were firing off and giving us space.”

Leonard found his space on the left side behind Misael Fernandez and Tommy Joiner. He dashed down the line before cutting inside and picking up a key downfield block from receiver Nate Cheney.

“It feels good when you get a long run off your side,” said Fernandez, who also notched a pair of sacks on the defensive side of the ball.

The play ignited an offense that was, to that point, its own worst enemy.

In the first 35 minutes of play, Roaring Fork lost two fumbles, a muffed punt, had a field goal attempt blocked and committed a spate of drive-killing penalties.

The play of the Rams defense more than made up for the offensive struggles, however.

The start was ominous for Roaring Fork, as La Junta’s Wade Kurtz recovered a fumbled snap on the first offensive play of the game at the Rams’ 18-yard line. The Tigers (6-4) pushed the ball to the 11 before stalling out and settling for a 28-yard Bruno Concalves field goal.

It was the end of the scoring for the Tigers, though, and La Junta didn’t penetrate deeper than the Rams’ 37 the rest of the game.

Roaring Fork answered quickly with a 12-play, 72-yard touchdown drive. Quarterback Dan Markoya finished off the march with a 21-yard draw up the middle for a 7-3 advantage with 3:54 left in the first quarter.

Then the scoring vanished for both teams.

The Rams held La Junta to a minus-7 offensive yards in the first half. Roaring Fork moved the ball, but couldn’t make the Tigers pay due to turnovers and penalties ” including three unsportsmanlike conducts.

“You take away what we did to ourselves and we were rolling,” Roaring Fork coach Tory Jensen said.

Early in the second quarter Leonard scored on a 6-yard touchdown run, but it was called back due to a holding infraction. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the same play pushed the ball back to the 29-yard line and Max Green’s 47-yard field goal attempt was blocked.

With La Junta starting at its own 37, the Roaring Fork defense pushed the Tigers back to the 17 and forced La Junta to kick. The low, line-drive punt, however, skipped off a Roaring Fork player and was recovered by La Junta’s Caleb Guerrero at the Rams’ 45.

“That first half was disastrous,” said Leonard, who made clear the 7-3 halftime lead was a disappointment to he and his teammates.

But the second half didn’t start out any differently for Roaring Fork.

On the Rams’ first offensive possession, Leonard took a run from the Roaring Fork 46 to inside the Tigers’ 10, only to have the play called back on a holding penalty. The next play La Junta’s Jared Masar jumped on a Leonard fumble near midfield.

“We’ve got to get back to focusing on keeping the turnovers down,” Jensen said. “It’s not like us.”

After another defensive stop, Leonard made his long touchdown run on a first-and-10 from the La Junta 15 to put Roaring Fork up 14-3 with 1 minute, 6 seconds left in the third.

The senior running back, who finished with 168 yards rushing, added another touchdown from 9 yards out with 6:34 left in the game and Jake Bowman wrapped up the scoring with an 8-yard run with 2:08 left.

La Junta finished with 26 total yards offense, five first downs and only one drive of more than six plays. Bowman had seven tackles and two assists, while Ryan Donnelly notched five tackles and two assists. Leonard and Markoya each had an interception.

Roaring Fork travels to play Estes Park Saturday in the quarterfinal round. Estes Park defeated Kent Denver 27-21 to advance.

The Rams have not advanced out of the quarters in the past four seasons.

“We’re looking to get past this,” Fernandez said. “It’s a big hump, but this year we’ve got the team to get it done.”

In other Class 2A playoff action: Faith Christian 34, Wray 20; Weld Central 35, Bayfield 21; Eagle Valley 34, Buena Vista 21; Eaton 21, Holy Family 17; Denver Christian 43, Pagosa Springs 6; Brush 18, Lamar 13.

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