A Saintly Story: Vail Christian football begins playoff run with perfect record
No.3 Vail Christian will face No. 14 Pikes Peak Christian on Saturday
The glossy jacket around the hypothetical hardcover storybook of Vail Christian’s 2021 season contains buoyant depictions of gaudy shutout wins, 50-point offensive outbursts, and a perfect 9-0 record. One ought to refrain from fully judging a book by its cover.
The No. 3 seed Saints head into the eight-man state high school football tournament with legitimate championship potential, but images of banners celebrating the team weren’t always in the picture. After the 2019 season, the Saints graduated 12 seniors.
“When you have eight-man football and 12 of them are seniors, not a whole lot of those other kids are playing,” head coach Tim Pierson said with a chuckle in a phone interview before Saturday’s game, a first-round matchup at 1 p.m. with No. 14 Pikes Peak Christian at Battle Mountain High School. “We didn’t know if we’d have a program.”
COVID-19 created uncertainty for fall sports, but for the Vail Christian football staff, personnel — or a lack thereof — only amplified the burden.
“We looked at ourselves and were like, ‘Man, we’re going to have graduation kill us,’” Pierson said, reflecting on his staff’s thoughts after the 2019 season.
The coach, who doubles as athletic director, has a clear desire to center the focus on the kids — his athletes — and he has good reason.
They kept the program alive.
“We were able to get some kids that were just walking the hallway out for football,” Pierson recalled. In 2020, they went 2-2, but the well-established culture of the program gradually molded the group of timid newcomers until they gained confidence and bought in. “We’ve been in the weight room, and they’ve worked hard, and here we are today,” the coach said about the vital newcomers to the team.
The 2021 squad is led by its senior class, a group that didn’t altogether avoid engaging in a growth mindset either. As sophomores, they had great seats to observe the 2019 Saints cruise to a 10-0 record before a 38-28 second-round loss to perennial power Dayspring Christian Academy. Simon Nowicki carried the ball for 546 yards and eight touchdowns that season as his little brother Vincent mostly watched. His season totals that year — 89 rushing yards — are nearly eclipsed weekly now. He’s averaged 83.9 yards per game on the ground and 61.0 yards per game through the air this season, proving himself worthy of a spot in the family pantheon of sibling Saints. His older brother Jake played for Vail Christian from 2014 to 2018. To the likely dismay of opponents, it should be noted that twin brothers wait in the wings.
The potent ground game is really rooted in another family tree, though. Senior Eddie Palacio, an offensive tackle, and his brother Angel, fullback, are responsible for creating the large gaps Nowicki, Peter Mills, Leo Rothenberg and quarterback Taylor Shull routinely bolt through. The Saints don’t rely completely on the ground, however, with the junior Shull having thrown for 1,475 yards and 20 touchdowns — against a single interception — on the year.
“He’s highly talented,” Pierson said about the quarterback. “Running, throwing the ball — he’s distributing the ball, and he’s doing a great job. He’s another key component of this team for sure.”
With such an arsenal of athletic weapons, one would have understandably expected title aspirations in the prologue of this story. It’s worth reiterating: This book can’t be judged by its cover. When asked what the theme of the year was, Pierson was quick to reply, “Let’s just play.”
Some of the sentiment, to be fair, is related to the life-altering effects of the global pandemic and its responsibility for the destruction of any sense of regularity for most student-athletes.
“It’s just back to basics. It’s football,” messaged Pierson to his group at the beginning of the year. “Just an opportunity for these kids to have a sense of normalcy.”
On a foundational level, however, the idea of “playing with passion” is the major theme of this team’s book, and its coach speaks it with a simple, direct and unadorned language that would make Hemingway proud.
“We’re just having fun playing football,” the coach emphasized. “The continuity — coaches, we’ve been together almost a decade. We’ve had parents who have had siblings go through our program. I think there’s a continuity of culture that we have that this is fun, this is important, this is community.”
Fun, but fully focused as well.
“We’re dialed in for what we do, and I think we keep it in perspective. It’s just high school football, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun, so let’s go have fun.”
In November, “fun” will have to mean taking down the slew of five A-8 Plains League teams represented at state, including a possible second round matchup with defending champion Sedgewick County. The Cougars have won six straight state titles, a record for Colorado football in any class.
“Everybody in the northeastern plains league is the real deal,” said Pierson. “Anybody can beat anybody on a given day. It’s the SEC of eight-man football.”
Being aggressive will be critical to prolonging the Saints’ season.
“You have to play physical football,” he said about surviving against the usual state tournament suspects. “They’re going to come at you.” Speed and space is what the eight-man game is predicated on, but it’s not everything. “You complement that with power, shove-it-down-your-face football,” added the coach. “And that’s what we’re in for. You’ve got to have an answer for what they do.”
In preparation for that answer, the Saints will focus on what they can control and devise a game plan suited to their strengths. Most importantly, though, they will have fun. The rest of the book will take care of itself.
“We’ll focus on those things and the storyline will be written later.”