Vail Christian football: ready to fly
Aspiring pilot Taylor Shull leads 7-1 Saints into playoff rematch against Sanford
Having graduated eight senior starters, Vail Christian quarterback Taylor Shull wasn’t sure what to expect as the Saints football team traveled to Pueblo to face Dolores Huerta Prep for the Aug. 27 season opener. Pondering life under center sans elite wide receivers Jeffrey Hall and Vinny Nowicki was understandable.
“Vinny was kind of our go-to guy last year,” Shull recalled. “If we needed something, we could go to him.”
Now, as Shull goes, so go the Saints. The aspiring pilot — he’s already acquiring his private pilot’s license at the Gypsum airport and hopes to someday fly commercial jets — is the undisputed captain. After that 48-20 opening win over the Scorpions, where the bruising quarterback rushed for four touchdowns and 262 yards on 13 carries — and threw for 111 yards, too — it became clear the Saints would fly only as high as Shull could take them.
“I’d never run and scored that many times,” he said. “I was like, ‘holy cow that was such an awesome game.’ As the season’s progressed I was just like, ‘OK, this is what the team needs out of me; I need to do this.’”
Averaging 245 rushing yards per game, Shull has amassed video-game-like stats worthy of a Fantasy Football Weekly feature — 1,961 yards, 12.4 yards per carry and 24 touchdowns — in leading the Saints to a 7-1 record. Though he has grounds to boast, the humble signal caller’s natural inclination is to redirect credit to his teammates, many of whom have risen to the occasion to replace those graduated stars.
Support Local Journalism
“We’ve had a bunch of people really step up,” he said, pointing to Andre Skweir, Theo Moritz and Alec and Teddy Bruno.
“Andre has had a big impact on the team,” Shull said of Skweir, whom he grew up playing catch with back in first grade at Eagle County Charter Academy. “He’s been a great addition on both sides of the ball, as well as being a great leader and bringing the intensity up in practice. Alec’s running great routes, he’s catching everything, so things are looking good for playoffs.”
On Saturday at 1 p.m., No. 9 Vail Christian will face No. 8 Sanford in a playoff rematch — the Mustangs handed the Saints their only loss of the year in 2021, ending their 10-1 season in the 8-man state quarterfinals.
“We’ve got a bad taste in our mouth about it,” Shull said.
Lifting off …and finishing the flight
Tim Pierson, Vail Christian’s head coach since 2004, said the team’s ‘rebuild’ (if you can even call it that) has been “a group effort.”
“I think a big story of our season has been adaptability to a new group,” he said. “We had three key components kind of coming back, but putting those other puzzle pieces together and figuring it out, … They’ve done a great job of getting ready every day and trying to get better.”
As newcomers have shuffled into vacant positions, the Saints’ offensive line and quarterback stability has been a cornerstone for success.
“Having those key components in place was huge,” Pierson said.
“A lot of growing up happened in a hurry in the beginning of the year for us,” he continued. “A lot of teaching, getting things dialed in, but I definitely think we’re coming together now.”
After starting 1-0, the Saints lost on Sept. 10 to current No. 6-seed Lyons, 30-8. They followed that up with two dominant wins against Front Range Christian and Plateau Valley before a tight battle at home against Hayden on Oct. 7. After building an early lead, the Saints let the Tigers back in.
“We thought we were about to blow them out and then they started coming back,” Shull said. “We had to show some resiliency there.”
Shull passed for two touchdowns and ran for three more in the 36-32 victory, amassing 363 yards on the ground. When asked about the game, he didn’t talk about his gaudy numbers, but highlighted Alec Bruno’s clutch fourth-quarter catch.
“If it weren’t for that, we might not have won league,” he said. “That was the first game where Alec really stepped up; it was probably the best game we’ve played as a team.”
Shull’s workload is significant, but he’s aware of who makes it possible, too.
“Always got to be humble and thank the o-line,” he said. “If I had no one to block for me, I’m not going to be able to do that.”
The gaping holes are one piece — but the 6’2″ quarterback’s Adrian Peterson-like shedding of would-be-tacklers is also a product of a power lifting obsession. During basketball season, Shull and a buddy spent their open period in the weight room, pushing each other to the cumulative bench press, squat and deadlift 1,000-pound club. He estimates he added 100 pounds to his squat, 50 to his bench and 60 to his deadlift over the spring and summer.
“That was a big thing for me,” Shull said. “I love lifting and passing it on to everyone else. It was fun to see everyone in the gym over the summer.” In addition to the three weekly sessions with the team — which were followed up by route running and field drills – Shull would head over to Endorphin in Eagle for supplemental lifting.
“I definitely had a change halfway through last year where I realized I was just a lot more physical than the majority of the people we played,” Shull said. “So, if I lowered my shoulder, I could run people over.”
“He definitely has some physical talent,” Pierson added. “He’s strong, he’s worked hard in that weight room, and he has a passion for the game and for being successful.” Shull’s love for the game was handed down from his father, a former All-American tight end at CSU.
“He blew his knee out playing football so he wanted nothing to do with football and then I came into his life and he was like, ‘man I just gotta pass on this love,’” Shull said, adding that his dad always gives him a little pep talk before games. “So, I would definitely say he’s my role model.”
Shull’s campaign hasn’t been a selfish stat-sheet-stuffing enterprise. He doesn’t keep track of his monstrous numbers — rather, the assumed and accepted leadership has flowed to the senior quarterback organically. The departure of established wide receiver threats meant the Saints weren’t as pass-happy to start 2022 — which led to more running plays for Shull — though, both coach and quarterback recognize the possible need to air things out on Saturday against their arch nemesis.
“Taylor’s put up some huge rushing numbers earlier in the season and we needed to get to the point where we could be more two-dimensional,” Pierson said.
“We’ve had three days of really good practices — working on route running and understanding their defensive schemes,” Shull added.
Having faced Sanford twice last year, plus in multiple scrimmages over the last four years, there’s plenty of shared intel on both squads.
“Both teams know each other really well,” Pierson said.
“They are very disciplined, they block well, they’re tough. They just execute and so we’ll need to go out and execute ourselves, stay disciplined and not beat ourselves and really stay mentally sharp.”
Shull noted the Mustang’s lanky defensive line, which presented problems last year by batting down several pass attempts. Additionally, he feels the Mustangs have a tradition for strong defensive secondary play, though they graduated an all-state running back, who was also a two-way cornerback star. Last season, the Saints’ threw away a halftime lead over Sanford; Shull said the theme of this week has been about finishing.
“That’s been a big thing from the coaches,” he said. “You need to finish and play four quarters of football because that’s what took us out of the playoffs last year.” If the Saints should soar to a second round matchup against either No. 1 Haxtun or No. 16 McClave, it will probably be thanks to another big performance from their quarterback.
“They’ve got a rowdy crowd there, too,” Shull said of the football-obsessed Sanford community.
“It’s going to be a good game.”