Jeff Caspersen
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

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November 21, 2012
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The rise of Rifle

They have struggled through the valleys and now are looking to reach the peak of Class 3A football in Colorado.

Rifle High School football's senior class has known both the anguish that comes with losing and the satisfaction that accompanies winning.

As freshmen on the school's C team back in 2009, they won just a single game. Now, as the elder statesmen on the Bears' varsity squad in 2012, they might not lose a single game.

"It's been a journey for our senior class," said quarterback Adam Rice, whose team is 12-0 and set to face Pueblo East (10-2) in Saturday's state semifinals. "We've had four weightlifting teachers, two head coaches and two offensive schemes."

With Damon Wells returning as head coach in 2010 after a two-year hiatus, stability returned to the program after a shaky period that would have jolted the most talented of teams.

In 2008, the Bears hired Bill Kucera to replace Wells, who stepped away after three years as head coach and eight seasons with the program. During a preseason practice, Kucera suffered an injury and never actually coached a game for the western Garfield County school.

Assistant Anthony Alfini, who is Rifle's present-day defensive coordinator, served as the interim head coach that season, in which the program saw a dip in numbers and went 3-7 at the varsity level, snapping a string of 13 consecutive playoff appearances.

Ryan Sulkowski entered the picture as head coach in 2009. He left for Baker County High School in Florida after a 4-6 campaign. Wells, who is also Rifle High's assistant principal, served as an assistant on Sulkowski's staff before returning as head coach in 2010, a season in which the Bears went 6-4 and narrowly missed the playoffs.

Last year, Rifle went 11-1 while advancing all the way to the state quarterfinals.

Rice credits Wells for crafting a culture rooted in hard work and camaraderie.

"I think he's one of the smartest coaches in the state," the Bears' quarterback said. "First of all, he knows his high school football really well. That helps, and he creates a football culture, and so do our weightlifting teachers."

Wells and his staff ask a lot of their players, but they also reciprocate. They spend hours upon hours preparing for whatever opponent awaits.

"We probably go a little bit overboard," admitted a grinning Alfini, a 2003 Rifle graduate. "We spend quite a bit of time getting ready for the next team we're going to face. Last week, we started at 7 o'clock in the morning."

As a result, the Bears are rarely caught off guard by a foe.

"We know everything they might possibly do," Rice said. "It helps us be successful on the field."

And off the field.

What Wells perhaps appreciates most is that the teenage boys that suit up for Rifle's football team are able to see their efforts rewarded, no doubt a valuable lesson for later in life.

"I'm so proud that, in our society, teenage boys can be rewarded for working so hard," Wells said. "We ask them to do a lot."

Between weightlifting, practices, offseason workouts, camps, game film study and whatever else coaches throw at them, these are some busy Bears.

"When you think about it, a lot of our kids can't drive a car yet," Wells said, "but we ask them to work hours upon hours every week."

And the seniors, they've come a long way since 2009, back before they could drive.

"We always had the talent," Rice said. "It was just a matter of getting us organized and getting together and just showing off what we can do."

Quite simply, Rifle's players grew tired of losing. So says senior running back Ryan Moeller, who played on the junior varsity and varsity teams in 2009.

"We decided we weren't having fun losing. Everybody just didn't want to take it anymore."

And now the Western Slope League, of which the Bears are back-to-back champions, and the rest of the state are paying the price.

jcaspersen@postindependent.com


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The Post Independent Updated Nov 21, 2012 03:49PM Published Nov 21, 2012 12:39AM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.