RIFLE, Colorado - With his players celebrating wildly in the background, Damon Wells pumped his fist. At last, Rifle High School's head football coach could exhale.
Ryan Moeller's 91-yard interception return for a touchdown as time expired afforded the Bears' frontman some relief. The senior safety's fateful runback sealed a 48-34 win over Roosevelt in the Class 3A quarterfinals.
While the thrill of victory proved exhilarating for Wells, getting there took a toll on his nerves.
"Having that experience is great for these kids," he said. "Going through that experience to get to it was tough."
It's not likely to get any easier for Wells and company going forward. On tap for top-seeded Rifle (12-0) is a road date with No. 5 Pueblo East (10-2) in the semifinals next weekend. Pueblo East upended No. 13 Delta on Saturday, 35-24.
"What a great experience to take with them for the rest of their lives, but I can tell you that, ultimately, we're not planning on any parades or anything like that," Wells relayed. "Right now, we'll get back to work and work like dogs."
Moeller, one of the Colorado's best running backs, had a day he'll likely never forget. He scored six total TDs, rushing for 196 yards and three scores, racking up 109 yards and two TDs via the air and then cashing in on the game-sealing interception. He also had an interception in the first half.
On his pick-six, Moeller had the end zone on his mind the whole time.
"Then you don't have to worry about running out the clock or anything," he said. "I just wanted to get in there, you know?"
Wells would have preferred a slightly different approach, but he certainly didn't mind the end result.
"We wanted him to go down," the veteran coach said with a smile. "But how do you tell a high school kid that, especially him? Him in the open field is a pretty good situation for us."
That it came down to that play is a testament to eighth-seeded Roosevelt, which mounted a furious fourth-quarter rally.
After Rifle's Isaac Rider busted loose for an 82-yard TD run up the left sideline to make it 42-21 with 7 minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the game, the Rough Riders delivered back-to-back scoring drives.
The first spanned 80 yards and finished at the 4:53 mark with a 1-yard TD dive by quarterback Spencer Urban, his second rushing score of the game. Adam Ghesquiere's extra point cut the score to 42-28.
After forcing Rifle to turn it over on downs, Roosevelt got the ball back with 1:43 to go and drove 70 yards on five plays to cut the deficit to a single score. Urban hit Josh Semmler with a pass in the left flat for a 19-yard TD. A failed extra-point try left the count at 42-34.
The Rough Riders' Christian Majszak recovered the ensuing onside kick to give his team a crack at tying it up.
From Rifle's 46, Urban connected with Omar Rivera on 15- and 7-yard passing plays to begin the final drive, moving the ball down to the 24. A spike to stop the clock followed before Moeller finished it off with his interception return.
"I think we had the heart and passion," said Semmler, a senior who rushed for 54 yards and two TDs. "We definitely wanted this win."
Urban, who amassed a team-high 110 yards on the ground and threw for 205 on a 15-of-23 passing line, completed 12 of 17 passes for 177 yards in the fourth quarter.
"We showed a lot of heart, a lot of determination, a lot of grit," said Roosevelt head coach Noland Eastin, whose squad finished up the year at 7-5 overall. "We were just a little short and a little bit late."
Big plays burned the Rough Riders.
Moeller's TD runs measured 42, 1 and 61 yards. His receiving scores totaled 95 and 10 yards. And then there was his interception return and Rider's big run.
"We can't give up big plays," Eastin lamented. "We gave up a number of them. You can't do that against a good team, and we talked about that coming in. They found some wrinkles here and there and did a good job against us. Give them credit for executing the plays."
Beyond Moeller, a number of Bears put up impressive stats.
Quarterback Adam Rice racked up 201 yards and two scores on 7-of-8 passing. Rider finished with 88 rushing yards on three carries and Kellin Leigh had 45 yards on 13 totes.
Rivera wound up with 98 receiving yards on seven catches for the Rough Riders. Mark Rios caught six balls for 81 yards.
"It was a tough game, like playing Palisade again almost," Rice said. "Roosevelt's a good, physical team. That'll get us ready for farther down the line."
Eastin likes Rifle's chances going forward.
"Congrats to them," he said. "They deserve to do well. So do my kids. It's unfortunate we ran into them right now and not in two weeks. To me, this was the state title game."