STERLING – The two teams on the field at Roscoe Eades Stadium during Saturday's Class 3A semifinal game didn't look the same, but were actually far more similar when you get right down to it.
While speedy Aurora Christian does its damage from a spread formation, the hard-nosed Newman Comets favor a physical, ground-and-pound attack.
But both teams are renowned for their efficiency and ability to run their favored systems. The bottom line is, they might do it in different ways, but they are very successful at what they do.
Saturday, it just so happened that the Eagles' system was more successful than Newman's. The end result was a 41-7 win that sent Aurora Christian to Friday's 3A state title game and ended the Comets' season at 12-1.
"Every week, we set out to make the other team prove they were better than us," Newman coach Mike Papoccia said to his team in the postgame huddle. "Today, they did."
"They're so talented and fast all over the field," Newman junior Jake Snow later added, "and they're just really good at what they do."
The Eagles (12-1) took an early lead with their passing game, and they ran the ball successfully from their spread sets as well. Short slants and outs, screen passes and a few shots down the sideline never allowed the Newman pass rush to get to quarterback Ryan McQuade.
McQuade finished 12-for-21 for 156 yards and four TDs, while Aurora Christian also ran for 209 yards and a score on 34 rushes.
"My O-line and fullback picked up the blitz really well; I barely got touched back there," McQuade said. "We made some sight adjustments at the line, but my backs and receivers are so good, it's really easy and fun for me to play with them. They take all the pressure off me."
"Their receivers have great hands and run good routes, and their quarterback puts the ball on the money almost every time," said senior linebacker Luke LeMay, who led the Comets with 10 tackles (9 solo) and three tackles for loss. "They have so much talent and run their stuff so well, and they made plays all over the field."
Early on, it looked like Newman's style would be just as successful. The Comets took up nearly 5 minutes with their ball-control style on their first drive, going 69 yards in 13 plays and capping it with Snow's 4-yard TD run. Newman dominated the smaller Eagles at the line of scrimmage, and the Comet backs broke numerous tackles in the backfield when Aurora Christian did get penetration.
But that seemed to wake up the Eagles. Newman sustained just two more drives after the initial series, and Aurora Christian repeatedly used its speed to shoot gaps and disrupt plays.
"We knew their M.O. was their physical play, and we knew we'd have to withstand that physicality," McQuade said. "Once we got into rhythm and started playing faster and more physical, that's when we're at our best."
"They started sending blitzes when we'd run our sweeps, and they'd also come hard up the middle to slow us down," Snow said. "That took us out of what we wanted to do and forced us to make mistakes."
As tears were shed and hugs were shared, the Comets knew their season had just come to an end against a team who deserved to win. Even during an emotional postgame speech, Newman's veteran coach told his players to stand proud and smile because of the journey they had undertaken together, not the destination they missed by a single stop.
And to a man, the Comets had no trouble tipping their caps to a team that, like them, is well-known for sticking to its strengths and executing the game plan – and just did it better than they did on this particular day.
"If there's a team you're going to lose to deep in the postseason," Snow said, "it's a team like them."
Added LeMay: "That's a team you could match up against 10 times, and you might win one out of 10."