James Campbell slowly walked off the field hugging everyone as he made his way to the locker room.
The end of a high school career is always cruel.
For Campbell and 15 other Poudre High School football players, that end came at the end of a 35-24 back-and-forth loss to No. 10 Highlands Ranch at French Field Thursday night.
“The emotion (right now) is probably love,” said Campbell, Poudre’s starting quarterback for the last three years. “Love for my teammates, my coaches, my family and friends that have helped me through this.”
Thursday’s game wasn’t a ceremonial contest to finish the season. A win would have put Poudre (5-5, 2-3 Mt. Lincoln Conference) right in the mix for a spot in the Class 5A 16-team playoff.
The Impalas started hot, with Campbell and junior star Zach Leal connecting on a 52-yard touchdown. Poudre was up 17-7 late in the second quarter after senior Austin Davis — who is Poudre’s starting kicker, punter and cornerback — picked off a pass and raced 55 yards for a score.
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But the Impalas couldn’t stop Highlands Ranch running back Kobe Eller. The fourth-leading rusher in 5A was outstanding, running for more than 330 yards and five touchdowns.
Poudre running back JT Erickson had 110 yards to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark on the season.
But Eller ultimately was the difference. Poudre led 24-21 after three quarters following Campbell’s touchdown pass to senior Ryan Selby late in the third, but Eller scored twice in the fourth (one on a fourth down) to seal the win.
It was another close call Poudre will rue in a close miss on the playoffs. The Impalas led Thursday in the fourth and had two- and three-point losses to Lakewood and Fossil Ridge, respectively.
“We all played as hard as we could and gave ourselves an opportunity at the end, it just got away from us,” said Leal, who finished the season with more than 600 receiving yards. “We accomplished a lot this season.”
While missing the playoffs stings, the seniors left proud of the progress they made. Poudre went 2-8 each of the two seasons before the seniors entered and they’ve grown from three wins as freshman and sophomores to four last year and five this.
“The growth that we’ve had over the last three years has been great,” third-year coach Marty McVicker said. “I can’t thank the seniors enough for that. They’ve pushed us back to where we were and we had a chance in the 10th game of the season.”
A hugely talented group returns next year as Poudre looks to crack the final 16 for the first time since 2008.
“We said as freshman we wanted to change the tone. We’re leaving it better than how we found it,” Campbell said. “We expect next year’s seniors to do the same. We’ve got a lot of good players, a lot of talent on that next team and we expect big things out of them.”
Follow sports reporter Kevin Lytle at twitter.com/Kevin_Lytle and at facebook.com/KevinSLytle.
NO. 10 HIGHLANDS RANCH 35, POUDRE 24
Highlands Ranch 0 14 7 14 — 35
Poudre 7 10 7 0 — 24
POUD — Zach Leal 52 catch from James Campbell (Austin Davis kick), 00:09.
HRHS — Kobe Eller 34 run (Jeremy Henning kick), 10:01.
POUD — Davis 38 kick, 5:32.
POUD — Davis 55 interception return (Davis kick), 1:51.
HRHS — Eller 1 run (Henning kick), 00:25.
HRHS — Eller 72 run (Henning kick), 11:15.
POUD — Ryan Selby 22 catch from Campbell (Davis kick), 4:37.
HRHS — Eller 37 run (Henning kick), 10:17.
HRHS — Eller 3 run (Henning kick), 2:29.