In many ways mirroring the nation, and even the world, 2018 brought big changes, big developments and big tragedies to the Aurora area.

It was a year that saw the unexpected death of the mayor, the grand opening of the largest hotel in the state and stunning, tragic shootings and even a candidate for Congress who maced his own face. Follow along as Sentinel Colorado writers offer highlights of an extraordinary year in news.

Mayor Steve Hogan dies

The biggest change in Aurora in 2018  was undoubtedly its local government representatives. The death of former Mayor Steve Hogan triggered a short series of appointments and shuffle on the council.

Fire Chief Fernando Gray hands an American flag to Police Chief Nick Metz to be given to Mayor Steve Hogan’s wife, Becky, during the memorial service for the Mayor, May 19 at the Heritage Christian Center. Hundreds attended the memorial service to pay their respects for the mayor and his family. Sentinel Photo by Philip B. Poston

Hogan died May 12, just a few days after announcing he was beginning home hospice care for cancer. The former mayor had been absent from city hall for months, but said he was still working on city matters while then-Mayor Pro Tem Marsha Berzins led city meetings.

Bob LeGare, an at-large city council member, was promoted to Hogan’s seat via council appointment. Others, such as Hogan’s son Tim and former councilwoman Renie Peterson, vied for the seat, too. LeGare said he would only serve the remainder of Hogan’s term, which will be up in 2019.

Johnny Watson, an Army veteran and former salesman for Kodak, was appointed to fill LeGare’s spot on council, receiving key votes from Democratic council members Nicole Johnston, Crystal Murillo and Allison Hiltz. Watson’s seat on the city’s planning commission was recently filled.

Hogan’s death sparked an outpouring of love for the longtime local lawmaker.

Former Aurora Mayor Dennis Champine said Hogan was the template for a public servant and his passion for Aurora never waned.

“As much as anyone,” he said, “Steve is Aurora.”

Jason Crow overthrows CD6 mainstay Mike Coffman

Five-term Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman blamed his defeat in Aurora on resentment toward President Donald Trump — but Trump offered no sympathy and accepted no responsibility.

“Too bad, Mike,” Trump said at a news conference just after the sweeping election that left Coffman without a job on the Hill and a cluster of state Democratic candidates in the winner’s circle.

Stacey McConlogue celebrates as the announcement that Jason Crow successfully won the election for Colorado’s 6th House District displays on the television on Nov. 6. Photo by Geoff Ziegler/The Sentinel

Coffman had held the greater-Aurora district for a decade, holding off a series of Democratic challengers as the district turned more liberal and diverse. But dislike of Trump and mistrust of the GOP’s immigration policies proved too much this election, Coffman said after losing to first-time Democratic candidate Jason Crow.

“In this congressional district, in this race, it was a referendum on the president,” Coffman said. “In the end, the waves were too big for this ship to stay afloat.”

Noting the shifting demographics of his district — where one in five residents was born outside the United States — Coffman said spending time with diverse communities made him a better congressman and a better person. He softened his position on immigration but said he could not overcome immigrants’ mistrust of his party.

“They believe that Republicans aren’t simply against illegal immigration but they are against immigrants,” he said.

Three other incumbent Republican congressmen won re-election in Colorado, but the rest of the state trended blue. Democrats held on to the governor’s mansion and defeated the incumbent Republican secretary of state. They won in the races for state treasurer and attorney general, offices currently held by Republicans.

Jason Crow celebrates with his wife after speaking to a crowd of supporters after defeating Mike Coffman in the race for Colorado’s 6th House District on Nov. 6. Photo by Geoff Ziegler/The Sentinel

Democrats also took over the state Senate from the GOP and expanded their majority in the state House. They held onto the congressional seat vacated by Jared Polis, who was elected governor.

Coffman’s seat was one of more than two dozen that Democrats took from Republicans as the GOP lost control of the U.S. House. The telegenic Crow, an attorney, was the choice of national Democratic leaders to challenge the incumbent.

Both candidates were veterans: Crow is a former Army Ranger who served in Iran and Afghanistan, and Coffman is an Army and Marine veteran who served twice in Iraq.

But Crow campaigned on his differences with Coffman on gun control, health care and immigration.

While no longer in Washington, Coffman has been hinting that he may take a stab at the 2019 bid for Aurora mayor. No confirmations have been made, and city officials say only two people have pulled packets for running for mayor, Omar Montgomery and Renie Peterson.

Cherry Creek School District marred by sexual assaults and misconduct

Former Prairie Middle School teacher Brian Vasquez was sentenced in September to 40 years to life in prison for having inappropriate sexual contact with five students.

Vasquez, 35, pleaded guilty in July to three counts of sexual assault and one each of sexual exploitation and attempted sexual exploitation.

Vasquez had taught social studies at Prairie Middle School in Aurora for seven years before being fired.

Investigators say much of the sexual contact happened inside the school, as well as in Vasquez’s car. One girl told police Vasquez groped her in class while he was teaching.

Cherry Creek schools agreed to pay $11.5 million to students sexually assaulted by Vasquez.

The settlement was split evenly five ways, said Abbe Smith, a spokeswoman for the Cherry Creek School District. Each victim was awarded $2,300,000.

$2,000,000 of the settlement was drawn from school district insurance. The school board met in October to approve the remainder of the settlement, Smith said.

“We acknowledge that no amount of money can right the wrongs committed against these students by Mr. Vasquez,” school district officials said in a statement. “No student should ever suffer the injury and loss of innocence that these young women suffered as a result of the reprehensible actions of Mr. Vasquez. The district is committed to doing right by these young women and their families and hopes this settlement brings some degree of closure so that they can move on with their lives and continue the healing process.”

Prairie Principal David Gonzales, Assistant Principal Adrienne “A.J.” MacIntosh and counselor Cheryl Somers-Wegienka were charged with failure to report earlier this year. In the original indictment, the three staff members were accused of conducting their own investigation which included questioning the student with Vasquez present and repeatedly telling her that her accusations could ruin Vasquez’s family and career. They also told the girl Vasquez was a “valued teacher.”

The attacks had a rippling effect across the district, prompting policy changes.

The Grand Lodge entry way is the centerpiece of the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center. It features a 9-story glass window that provides views of the Denver skyline and beautiful sunsets. Photo by Geoff Ziegler/The Sentinel

The massive Gaylord Rockies hotel and resort arrives at last

The ribbon was finally cut.

The 1,501-room Gaylord Rockies hotel and convention center officially opened for business in December, culminating more than eight years of negotiations and construction.

There was no shortage of gawking at the specifications of the hotel — the largest in the state — and recollections of hard work from government officials and the project’s development team.

“It’s amazing,” said Denver resident Willy McCarty, 54, who came to book a stay at the resort.

McCarty and hundreds more packed the lobby overlooking the Grand Lodge, an expansive gazebo framing views of downtown Denver and the Rockies beyond, to hear remarks from the likes of RIDA Development Corporation President Ira Mitzner, Aurora Mayor Bob LeGare, outgoing Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman and Wendy Mitchell, CEO of the Aurora Economic Development Council.

Mitchell, who helped navigate about $300 million in tax incentives from the state and City of Aurora, teared up during her remarks.

Colin Reed, CEO of project financiers Ryman Hospitality Properties, said the Gaylord project also persevered through the occasional “screaming matches” between development teams.

“Now we’re going to make some money, and have some fun,” Reed said.

Aurora’s R Line dips in service

After outcry from residents who regularly ride the R Line in 2017, a large portion of service on the train line remained in-tact into 2018 — but that wasn’t the end of turbulent times for the transit line that’s been open for just under two years now.

Thomas Dhoore prepares to board the R Line train to head to a job, March 30 at the Aurora Metro Center station. After a little more than a year of the line running, ridership numbers for the R Line are well below what RTD estimated they would be after its first year.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel

On Fridays, the busiest day of the week for the line and a day with extended hours, the R Line is averaging about daily 7,300 riders, according to numbers provided by the Regional Transportation District. From Monday to Thursday, the line is luring only 6,200 each day.

Last year, when the $687-million line opened, RTD’s boss said they would be pulling in 12,000 riders each day by now.

And so service cuts were made. And then in September the R Line limited the line to one car per trip.

RTD spokeswoman Michelle Brier told the Sentinel what has been the root of woes for much of young history of the R Line: “Our service standard for passengers per car is about 110 people per car and R Line ridership is below that standard.”

Aurora Highlands development breaks ground, officials scramble to secure infrastructure financing

Developers began turning dirt on the plains east of E-470 this year, setting into a motion a decades-long plan to bring some 23,000 families — or as many as 60,000 residents — to some of Aurora’s most rural extremities.

Artist renderings of Aurora Highlands concepts. The first phase of the development is expected to span 2,900 acres before growing to nearly 5,000 acres in later phases. Once it’s complete, the project could be home to as many as 23,000 families. PHOTO SUPPLIED

With an entrance located around E-470 and East 40th Avenue, the so-called Aurora Highlands development is expected to bring homes, businesses and schools to some 3,000 acres of land within the 21,000-acre “aerotropolis” south of Denver International Airport.

The Aurora Highlands is also expected to support some 170,000 jobs in the city in the coming years.

Local officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the gargantuan development earlier this fall, though financing for the project’s required infrastructure has hit several speed bumps in recent months.

An anonymous lender offering $175 million to fund the roads and interchanges around the development briefly backed out of a financing deal after negotiations surrounding oil and gas development in the area hit a snag. The deal was re-instated in October after brokers reached a deal with ConocoPhillips.

Members of the Aerotopolis Regional Transportation Authority — including two Aurora city council members — are in the process of shoring up alternative financing to fund the development’s roads.

Last week, ARTA members selected CitiGroup to finance the new roadway infrastructure around the Highlands.

While a framework development plan for the Highlands was released earlier this year, a developer site plan that could outline plans for funding public services like firefighting duties will likely be released early next year, according to Jason Batchelor, deputy city manager.

All of the new residents at the Highlands could require at least two new fire stations to the tune of more than $20 million, according to information presented by staffers from Aurora Fire Rescue at a meeting in November.

“The total buildout is going to be a shocking, an alarming number,” Allen Robnett, a commander for Aurora Fire Rescue, said of Highlands population predictions at the meeting. “However, we can’t really predict how long that’s going to take to get to that level.”

No charges for Aurora officer who shot homeowner saving his grandson

An Aurora police officer who fatally shot a 73-year-old man following a bizarre home invasion this summer was recently exonerated of any wrongdoing, local prosecutors announced.

Based on witness interviews and more than 90 videos captured by officers’ body cameras, Adams County District Attorney Dave Young earlier this month said Aurora Police Officer Drew Limbaugh did not know who the north Aurora homeowner was and rightfully fired when the man refused police commands to drop his handgun.

Jeanette Black, center, comforts her grieving grandson during her husband Richard Black’s memorial service, Aug. 25 at Fairmount Cemetery. Richard Black, a decorated Vietnam Veteran, was shot by an Aurora police officer after an intruder broke into Blacks home.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/The Sentinel

The man, Richard “Gary” Black, had moments before shot and killed another man who had broken into his home in the middle of the night and attempted to drown his young grandson.

Young said police did not know that Black had woken after midnight to investigate banging sounds and soon heard his 11-year-old grandson screaming as an intruder attacked him inside the bathroom. Police also did not know that the intruder, later identified as 26-year-old Dajon Harper, was lying on the bathroom floor after being shot twice by Black, he said.

Young said police arriving at the home in Aurora around 1:30 a.m. on July 30 had little information and no description of a suspect.

Within seconds, he said police heard gunshots inside the house and saw Black come into the hallway holding a handgun in one hand and a flashlight in the other. Young said the body camera footage shows police repeatedly told Black to drop his weapon before he came toward officers. Black then raised the flashlight, and Limbaugh fired four times. An autopsy revealed Black was struck three times in three different locations on his body: the shoulder, the chest, and the upper back, according to Young’s report on the incident.

Limbaugh had killed another suspect in an incident just weeks before the fatal July shooting.

Police have said Black had a hearing impairment due to his military service. Young wrote that Black may not have heard the commands or recognized the officers as police but said that does not change Limbaugh’s “reasonable belief that Mr. Black presented a threat.”

Witnesses told police that Harper was at a party at a family member’s home nearby and may have been using drugs. Early that morning, he ran away and apparently broke down the Black family’s front door.

Harper had been released from the Denver County Jail after serving time for a misdemeanor robbery charge about 23 hours before the shooting, according to Young’s report.

Through their lawyers, members of the Black family condemned Young’s decision to absolve Limbaugh.

“The District Attorney’s report selectively emphasizes certain facts in order to justify its conclusion,” Attorney Qusair Mohamedbhai, who has represented the Black family for several months, said in a statement. “But the report minimizes what is clear from the body camera footage: the officers who responded to the Black residence never identified themselves as law enforcement to Mr. Black prior to shooting him dead.

State Sen. Rhonda Fields said in August that she’s considering whether to prompt legislative inquiry into the length of time an officer is returned to duty after being involved in a shooting, and possibly legislation as well.

Republican candidate for governor, Walker Stapleton, approaches the podium Nov. 6 to give his concession speech after losing to democratic candidate Jared Polis.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/The Sentinel

Democrats nearly sweep Arapahoe County races, including new sheriff from tiny Mountain View

Arapahoe County Democrats trounced a trove of Republican incumbents this Election Day, auguring a local ripple of the liberal tidal wave that swept across the country.

Local Democrats beat heavily favored GOP opponents in the races for Arapahoe County sheriff, assessor and clerk and recorder.

In the race for county clerk, Joan Lopez bested her Republican opponent — and her boss — Matt Crane by more than 5,000 votes.

Perennial candidate PK Kaiser easily defeated industry journeyman Marc Scott to become the next county assessor.

On the board of county commissioners, Democrat Nancy Jackson easily retained her seat for a third term.

Nancy Sharpe, the incumbent commissioner representing District 2, was the sole Republican to fend off a Democratic challenge on Election Day. She beat her opponent by about 1.5 percentage points, or slightly less than 1,000 votes.

The Republican candidates for County Coroner, Dr. Kelly Lear, and County Treasurer, Sue Sandstorm, both ran unopposed. Both were incumbents.

But the shock of this year’s local elections came in the race for Arapahoe County Sheriff, which saw an unseasoned Democrat from a minuscule Front Range town easily beat a highly-regarded local Republican.

Tyler Brown, who for the past three years has been a patrolman in the diminutive town of Mountain View just north of Denver, defeated Republican Dave Walcher — the handpicked successor of the previous sheriff — by more than 20,000 votes.

Brown, 35, started his policing career as a patrolman in Northglenn before working in the armed officer division of Aurora Public Schools. He’s been an officer with the Mountain View Police Department since 2015. Located between Denver and the equally tiny hamlet of Lakeside, Mountain View spans about 12 square city blocks and boasts a population of about 540 people, according to recent census data.

RED MEANS NO: Aurora voters choose to end city’s controversial red-light photo program

Drivers that run red lights in certain intersections will no longer run the risk of getting caught via camera. Aurora voters overwhelming defeated the city’s photo red light program this Election Day.

Nearly two-thirds of voters in Aurora agreed to get rid of the cameras, which have provided millions of dollars to local social programs, including the city’s only overnight homeless shelter and resources for victims of domestic violence.

Officials will allow the contract with the company that runs the camera program to expire on Jan. 1. Until then, people who are caught stealing across intersections may still get a $75 ticket, according to city staff.  The cameras will be removed after the contract expires on New Year’s Day.


Cherry Creek school district snuffs aerospace charter school after conditional approval

An aerospace-centric charter school on Centennial airport was initially OK’d for launch after months of negotiations until the Cherry Creek Board of Education stymied the project in November.

Colorado Skies Academy was set to open for the 2019-2020 school year to combine project based learning, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) education and focus it all on the aerospace industry. The charter school, which would have served sixth through eighth grades, aimed to take kids who are already intrigued with the idea of aviation and put them on the fast track to becoming the next generation of leaders of the skies.

The school is the brainchild of John Barry, a former superintendent of Aurora Public Schools and retired two-star Air Force general who currently sits at the helm of Wings Over the Rockies museum, and California-based charter school network iLead Schools. The museum was set to expand onto a new campus at the Centennial Airport.

The Cherry Creek school board approved the charter school in October on the condition that it submit plans for special education and other requirements, including filing evidence that enough students were interested in the school to warrant a 2019 opening.

The Cherry Creek Board of Education revoked its additional approval soon after, ending months of negotiations and potentially setting the charter school back to square one.

Colorado Skies since appealed the decision to the state Board of Education, which can force Cherry Creek schools to reconsider the charter application and eventually force approval of the school.

Sen. Rhonda Fields speaks with a group of Girl Scouts from Aurora, CO at the Aurora City Council meeting where their crafted legislation regarding an adult smoking ban in cars when minors are in the vehicle was passed with a vote of 6-5, Feb. 5, 2018, at the Aurora Municipal Center.
Photo by Veronica L. Holyfield/Aurora Sentinel

Aurora Girl Scouts make law

Smoking or vaping in a car with a juvenile present now comes with a fine or community service in Aurora. The city council narrowly passed an ordinance in February banning the action.

An Aurora Girl Scout troop pushed the measure, ultimately winning over five city council members and former Mayor Steve Hogan. Now, first time offenders of the secondary offense — meaning Aurora police can only write a citation to suspected scofflaws if there is other wrongdoing, such as speeding — face a $150 fine or community service.

Aurora cop fired for racist remark gets his job back

To the vocal dismay of the mayor and chief of police, an Aurora police lieutenant fired for making a “racially inflammatory comment” last year — and who faced similar accusations a decade ago — was reinstated this summer.

Chief Nick Metz fired Lt. Charles DeShazer last September just a few months after DeShazer made the comment following a police pursuit and officer-involved shooting in Denver.

DeShazer’s body cam recorded him saying, “We have the Alabama porch monkeys all contained.”

DeShazer appealed the firing to the city’s Civil Service Commission, which held a two-day hearing this summer.

Metz said the commission agreed with his ruling that the comment warranted punishment but overturned DeShazer’s firing and said he should be demoted to sergeant. The commission also said DeShazer should not receive any back pay for the 10 months he was out of work.

“The racially insensitive comment made by Sgt. DeShazer is in direct contradiction to the values of the Aurora Police Department,” Metz said in a statement.

Tillemann uses mace to make a point

“This will save lives,” CD6 Democratic congressional candidate Levi Tillemann said in a campaign ad just second before he took a healthy shot of mace to his eyes.

It wasn’t the first time Tillemann turned heads during the Democratic primary for CD6. The self-described progressive candidate faced Congressman-elect Jason Crow in the primary, gaining national attention along the way. First for the release of a secret recording with a top House Democrat that said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had all but publicly said they were completely backing Crow. Next, Tillemann said pepper spray could be used to defend classrooms from active shooters.

On YouTube he wrote, “…it’s easier to hit a target with a pepper spray stream than a bullet. Over 70 percent of the time, police do not hit their intended target when shooting at a distance of less than 10 ft. (Pepper spray has an effective range of up to 30 feet.)”

Aurora Public Schools looks forward with Blueprint APS

Five proposals that could dramatically change the Aurora Public Schools District now move to the school board for review and possible action.

Aurora Public Schools Superintndent Rico Munn is seen in a reflection from a framed Franco Harris jersey, which hangs in his office.
Portrait by Philip B. Poston/The Sentinel

The APS school board received months of work this year on Blueprint APS in the community to assess challenges and look at potential changes to the district’s philosophy and operations during the next decade.

MGT Consulting Group presented a final report to the school board detailing the current findings of the district-led campaign.

On the table are proposals to keep things as they are or clarify the role of alternative programs and charter schools, as well as determine mental health and social services in schools. One proposal would essentially end traditional grade levels and create fluid grade ascension.

APS launched Blueprint APS last spring to modernize a plan for building new schools and define the district’s philosophy for the next decade. The district paid more than $100,000 to  private MGT Consultant group to oversee the first phase of Blueprint.

The #MeToo movement goes local

The #MeToo movement that ousted several Hollywood elites for unwanted sexual advances quickly made its presence known with many state legislators being named in accusations, including former Thornton House Rep. Steve Lebsock who was expelled for sexual harassment allegations from five women in May.

The Democrat changed his party affiliation to Republican in the final minutes before he was expelled.

FILE – In this Monday, April 2, 2018, file photo, legislative aides stand in unison during the reading of a Democratic resolution calling for the expulsion of Colorado State Senator Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, during a debate on the chamber’s floor in the State Capitol in Denver. Baumgardner is accused of inappropriately touching a former legislative aide. Colorado lawmakers have decided to defer taking action on a new misconduct policy until the new session convenes next January. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Other state lawmakers were accused too: Hot Sulfur Springs Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner, Centennial Republican Sen. Jack Tate, Cherry Hills Village Sen. Daniel Kagan was found more likely than not to have used the women’s bathroom on multiple occasions, Democratic Rep. Paul Rosenthal and southeastern Colorado Sen. Larry Crowder.

Later a Denver Post report highlighted Aurora state Rep. Jovan Melton’s arrest record. The Democrat who was facing re-election had two charges related to domestic violence, but no convictions, a reason why the lawmaker said he would not step down even as fellow lawmakers called on him to do so.

Melton won his seat against Lynn Myers, who was appointed to the candidacy by a vacancy committee, and let go of leadership roles. He promised to work on rebuilding relationships in the community, he told the Sentinel.

Meanwhile at Aurora city hall, the Aurora City Council passed a sexual harassment policy last winter that said taxpayer money would not be “used for the indemnity of city council, executive staff of the city manager’s office, department directors and council appointees for sexual harassment” if any of those elected officials or staffers do not complete a sexual harassment training.

City councilman Charlie Richardson, who proposed the passed resolution, said during a policy meeting that he asked the measure be drafted after noticing a dramatic uptick in reports of sexual harassment in the news back in October.

“If it can happen in Hollywood, it can happen in Aurora,” he said.

In March the council along with executive staff underwent a two-hour sexual harassment training.

Aurora-based Wings Over the Rockies Museum expanded onto Centennial Airport

The Lowry-based aviation museum opened the hangar doors to its Boeing Blue Sky Gallery on July 21. The 19,000-square-foot museum dedicated to the future of aviation is just the first of several additions planned for Wings’ Exploration of Flight campus down at the Centennial Airport.

Kael Tapper works on attaching the vertical stabilizer to the fuselage of a Van’s RV-12 Aircraft being built by students of the Wings Aerospace Academy, Jan. 17 at Wings Over the Rockies. The students have been building the aircraft since October 2017 and the build is expected to take approximately one and a half years.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel

While the Blue Sky Gallery isn’t as an expansive in size as its sister museum in Lowry, the experience for guests is anything but narrow in scope. Everything is hands on, from virtual reality flight experiences, to simulators that are so high tech they will allow pilots to recertify their credentials. But not everything is computer simulators. The museum even sports a custom built wooden maze that teaches the importance of communication between pilots and flight towers.

Along with the high- and low-tech exhibits, the museum puts guests right next to the active runway at the airport and will even give tours of the airport field.

The campus will eventually house the Black Sky Gallery dedicated to the future of space travel and training and education centers for aviation mechanics and operations.

Scott Siegfried named new Cherry Creek schools superintendent

The Cherry Creek School District Board of Education named Scott Siegfried as its next district superintendent on March 23. Siegfried, the former deputy superintendent, was announced by the board on March 9 as the sole finalist to replace outgoing superintendent Harry Bull.

Grandview wins his and hers basketball titles

In the 20 years since Grandview High School opened its doors, the Aurora school’s athletic program has grown and morphed into a lot of things.

After a historic night March night at the Denver Coliseum, it’s officially a basketball school.

Grandview pulled off an extremely rare feat with his and hers hoops titles, yet not something totally unique in Aurora.

The Grandview girls repeated as Class 5A state champions with a dramatic 67-61 victory over Regis Jesuit in an all-Aurora final, then returned to the court a couple of hours later to celebrate the boys team’s first title after a 57-52 win over George Washington.

“We’ve been a basketball school,” junior Dayne Prim contended afterwards.

“Hopefully everyone that was here tonight knows that now.”

Grandview pulled off an extremely rare feat with his and hers hoops titles, yet not something totally unique in Aurora.

Regis Jesuit swept the 5A boys and girls crowns back in 2009, something ThunderRidge out of Highlands Ranch also did in 2003.

But this one was overwhelmingly special for Grandview’s basketball programs, which had seen a whole slew of other sports — all girls, with the exception of the football team in 2007 — add state championship team hardware before coach Josh Ulitzky’s girls team did it last season.

Though Ulitzky’s team graduated four-year varsity star Michaela Onyenwere and other key senior regulars in Kennede Brown and Lenzi Hudson, the Wolves were considered a very strong contender to vie for another state championship.

Colin Walsh, top, and the Regis Jesuit ice hockey team pile onto each other after the Raiders’ 2-0 win over Valor Christian in the state ice hockey championship game March 6, 2018, at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Regis Jesuit won the program’s fifth all-time state championship and finished a perfect 23-0 season. Courtney Oakes/Sentinel

Regis Jesuit ice hockey team caps perfect season with state championship

In the fading din of a post-championship celebration, Dan Woodley leaned back, let out a sigh of relief and tried to reflect on what his Regis Jesuit ice hockey team had done.

And it was good. Historically good.

Minutes earlier, the Raiders finished off an undefeated 23-0 season with a 2-0 victory over Valor Christian on the big ice at the Pepsi Center to cap arguably one of the greatest campaigns in Colorado prep ice hockey history.

Woodley will soon get his fifth state championship ring with the program, but the relentless way in which this team handled the season left an indelible impression on the veteran coach.

“It was a great year, I’m not sure how you could put that season into words,” said Woodley, now 5-2 with Regis Jesuit all-time in finals.

“I’m not sure how I’ll ever come back and try to do that again.”

Grandview’s Santillan becomes a Fab-u-lous champ

Exactly what Fabian Santillan heard from his longtime coach Ben Menzor Feb. 17 under the bright lights at Pepsi Center remains private, but it definitely included the words “you deserve this.”

Fabian Santillan claimed a state championship that was 12 years in the making with a 4-1 win over Adams City’s Nicholas Gonzales in the Class 5A 126-pound final.

With Menzor, his wrestling father figure in his corner, the Grandview junior claimed a state championship that was 12 years in the making with a 4-1 win over Adams City’s Nicholas Gonzales in the Class 5A 126-pound final.

Just before the match, Menzor gave Santillan a brief and poignant reminder of everything that led up to that moment.

“I let him stew and think about it a little bit and then when we were on the mat, I told him ‘You deserve this, you worked hard and you deserve to be here,’” Menzor said.

“‘You cut no corners in life and you deserve to be here. You did it the right way.’”

Though he wasn’t a “natural” at the start, Santillan worked and worked and worked his way into the elite ranks of his sport.

He placed fourth at state as a freshman at 113 pounds and might have won last season’s state championship at 120 pounds — where he was an All-American after winning the prestigious Reno Tournament of Champions — had a knee injury not ended his season early.

Emma Bryant follows in brother’s footsteps to win state golf title

Class 5A individual state golf championships for the Bryant family in 2017-18: 2. Individual state golf championships for the rest of Colorado: 0.

Seven months after older brother Davis Bryant won the 5A boys golf state crown, Eaglecrest freshman Emma Bryant followed suit with a seven-shot victory May 22 at Boulder Country Club.

Bryant came into the final round three shots off the lead, but rocketed to the top of the leaderboard with birdies on her first three holes, finished the front nine at 5-under-par and was off to the races on what turned out to be the largest margin of victory for a 5A state winner since 2013.

A birdie putt on the 18th hole put a cherry on top of the performance for Bryant, who finished with rounds of 73 and 70 to come in at 1-under-par for the tournament.

“At the time Davis won, I was so happy for him and then people were saying ‘it would be so cool if his sister won it, too,’” Bryant said. “I’ve been living in his shadow for a really long time, so to just make my own path feels so good.”

Grandview girls soccer team wins third title in four seasons

Insane Becomes Expected — IBE — is the mantra the Grandview girls soccer team chose for the 2018 season, revealed before the Class 5A state championship game May 23.

For coach Tari Wood’s Wolves to be holding the Class 5A state championship trophy at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park — much less the way they won it — is the definition of insanity.

Sophomore Caylin Lyubenko extended her right leg and took a shot with her back to the Broomfield goal that somehow pinballed its way across the goal line to give the top-seeded Wolves a 1-0 victory and their third state championship in the past four seasons.

Regis Jesuit boys swim team gets back on top

It was pandemonium inside the Veterans’ Memorial Aquatic Center May 19 during the final race of the Class 5A boys state swim meet.

Three-time defending 5A state champion Fossil Ridge and contender Regis Jesuit had traded blows back and forth for the entire meet until it came down to the outcome of the 400 yard freestyle relay to decide who would win this season’s crown.

Raiders senior Elijah Warren — who won all four final races he swam in on the day — held off SaberCats senior star Danny Kovac on the final leg of the relay, as he touched the wall first to deliver Regis Jesuit’s 22nd overall state championship, but first since 2014.

A season after Regis Jesuit finished 105 points behind Fossil Ridge, coach Nick Frasersmith’s Raiders topped the SaberCats by a mere 4.5 points in a battle of programs that have developed the utmost respect for each other over the last handful of seasons.

Cherokee Trail girls track team gets help to win 5A state title by a point

The state track meet had a little bit of everything.

It started out in 80-plus degree weather at Jefferson County Stadium and ended three days later in 40 degrees and pelting rain.

There was plenty of drama, tight finishes and winning as well for Aurora athletes, who combined to claim five state championships — all on the girls side — when all was said and done.

The Cherokee Trail girls turned out to be the big winner, as the Cougars won the program’s second Class 5A state team championship and did it by just a single point.

The Cougars won despite just one individual state championship — senior Sydnee Larkin’s first-day victory in the 5A girls long jump — though the senior group of Larkin, Jaiden Paris, Taylor Watson and Chian DeLoach grabbed points in bunches, while the 4×800 meter relay contributed a crucial point.

Even so, Cherokee Trail needed help — especially from its friends in the Centennial League — to hold off a Denver East team led by sprint superstar Arria Minor.

The Cougars would give Grandview sophomore Lily Williams a share of the championship if they could, given Williams’ upset victory of Minor in the finals of the 400 meter dash may have made the difference.

Kylee Harr repeated as high jump state champion and Williams combined with Saniya Craft, Kaitlyn Mercer and Kameryn Brown to win the 4×400 relay for the Wolves.

Members of the Regis Jesuit field hockey team pose with the state championship trophy the Raiders won with a 2-1 overtime victory over Cherry Creek on Oct. 25, 2018, at All-City Stadium in Denver. Courtney Oakes/Sentinel

Regis Jesuit knocks off Cherry Creek to win first-ever field hockey state title

Lauren Pendergast went right when she usually goes left and it made state champions out of the Regis Jesuit field hockey team Oct 25.

In the biggest moment of the season — overtime of a state championship game showdown with undefeated Cherry Creek — the junior midfielder went away from her usual spot when taking a stroke — the sport’s version of a penalty shot — and converted to put her team in front.

Pendergast scored both goals and coach Spencer Wagner’s Raiders, who were poised to win in regulation before the Bruins scored in the final second, held on to win the program’s first state championship.

It came in front of a record crowd of more than 1,000 spectators at All-City Stadium, many of which created a red sea of celebration around the victors when the game ended.

“Every time I practice going to the same spot, and it’s on the left side,” Pendergast said of her stroke philosophy.

Regis Jesuit became the second Aurora program to win a state title since field hockey became a sanctioned sport in 1997 and first since Smoky Hill won the 1999 crown.

Smoky Hill football team finishes 10-0 regular season

The 2018 Smoky Hill football team had a storybook season that was a definite page-turner.

Smoky Hill’s turnaround under Tom Thenell in his first season as head coach reached another level Oct. 26 at Stutler Bowl with a hard-fought 35-28 victory over Westminster that earned the undefeated Buffaloes the Metro 10 championship — their first league title since 1980.

Smoky Hill coach Tom Thenell raises his arms in celebration after a 35-28 victory over Westminster on Oct. 26, 2018, at Stutler Bowl that capped a 10-0 regular season for the Buffs. Smoky Hill won its first league championship since 1980 in the process. Courtney Oakes/Sentinel

How much of an about-face was the Buffaloes’ season? They were 1-9 last season, hadn’t won a combined 10 games in the previous five-plus seasons and hadn’t even finished over .500 in any season in nearly 30 years.

“When you were picked 40th out of 40 teams to start the season and finish the regular season 10-0, that’s what they write stories about, isn’t it?,” a clearly affected Thenell said.

Smoky Hill suffered its first loss of the season to Regis Jesuit in the first round of the 5A state playoffs.


THE YEAR IN PICTURES


And also…

-Hickenlooper commutes life sentence of Aurora man convicted as teen of 1995 murder charge

-RUBBED OUT: Aurora closes nearly 20 massage facilities for alleged ties to prostitution, human trafficking amid year-long crackdown

-JUDGMENT DAY: Voters oust district court judge who earned no-confidence flag from state performance commission

-Aurora man charged with bestiality sentenced to 6 months in jail; dog to be destroyed