Memories of the 2012 Class 3A state championship football game are still vivid in the mind of Austin Shepherd, especially the atmosphere at the game.
“I couldn’t believe that. That was so awesome,” said the Rifle High School senior, who was a sophomore for the Bears that year. “To see everyone fill up the stands like that, knowing they had all driven three hours to be there. When all the fans went all that way, I felt so privileged to be on a team with that kind of fan base.
“That was so cool. I was smiling the entire time during that game,” Shepherd continued before pausing and adding, “Well, I take that back ...”
The final result of that state title game in 2012 resulted in the only blemish on the Bears’ otherwise perfect season. Silver Creek beat Rifle, 32-15, to give the Raptors the state championship trophy and the Bears a final record of 13-1.
Still, Rifle won the numbers game in the stands at Legacy Stadium, which seats 7,000 by some accounts. The Bears’ fans filled the visitor’s side of the stands to capacity. Meanwhile, Silver Creek’s side of the field, even with its loud a raucous student section, only filled the stands to one-third of their capacity.
High school sports has had a massive following in Garfield County for as long as people can remember, and 2012 wasn’t the only time in recent memory when an area football team has had a chance to win it all in front of a huge crowd.
Glenwood Springs got a chance to do that in 2008 — at Legacy Stadium, no less — and pulled it off, finishing the season with an unblemished 14-0 record. Rifle got a chance to do it in 2005 and fell short, but the Bears won it all in 2004 with a 7-6 victory over Sterling in front of an overflow crowd at Bears Stadium in Rifle.
Every county football program has seen success, which has resulted in big followings at their games. One is Grand Valley, which in that same 2012 season posted an 8-1 regular-season record before falling to Middle Park in the first round of the Class 2A state playoffs. Another is Coal Ridge, which made its first state playoff appearance in the school’s short history in 2010.
Then there’s Roaring Fork, which was a proverbial league and state-playoff contender on an annual basis until 2006, which was the last time the Rams reached the postseason.
Win or lose, however, high school football has proven to be a big draw in Garfield County. Even teams that didn’t have successful seasons a year ago still have a regular following of not only parents and older fans, but the student body as well.
“It’s great to be walking down the hallway on game day and have someone out of the blue come up to you and wish you good luck,” said Coal Ridge senior Max Bettle, whose team finished the season with a 1-8 overall record playing in the Class 2A Western Slope League. “Knowing that there’s always people who are behind you and pulling for you always helps when you’re on the field.”
No football team in Garfield County has had more people pulling for them in the past decade than the Rifle Bears.
Rifle has had a lot of success to spur that support, though. The Bears have made trips to the Class 3A state championship game three times in the past 10 seasons and, thanks to the 3A Western Slope League title it shared with Palisade last year, will also go into the season with at least a share of the past three league titles.
Shepherd was a big part of that. The 99 tackles he amassed last year was not only led the Bears, but it ranks sixth among high school juniors who played at the 3A level last season. Two of those players ahead of Shepherd – Zeb Foster and Devon Baker – played for Coronado of Colorado Springs, a school that will play in Class 4A this season after winning the 3A state championship in 2013.
Rifle turned out to be the first casualty during Coronado’s title run, which was possible in part because of CHSAA’s rule allowing teams to play down a level after years of futility in a higher classification. Ironically, bigger schools have been the ones that have proven to be the Bears’ greatest challengers: four of the five losses Rifle has suffered in the past three seasons have come against teams from schools with enrollments of 1,000 students or greater.
And three of those teams – Windsor (2011), Silver Creek (2012) and Coronado (2013) – not only went on to win a state championship in those years, but are playing in Class 4A this season. Still, many attest that Rifle’s fan base rivals the fan base of much bigger schools, providing an advantage that’s the envy of many programs.
“Rifle is just a great town with great people in it,” Shepherd said. “We have a dream to win a state championship every year, and I know they would all like to see that happen.”
GAINING GROUND IN GLENWOOD
The Glenwood Springs Demons have also picked up a few more followers, especially after a very close first-round, state-playoff victory at Elizabeth at the beginning of last year’s postseason. Close to 200 Glenwood fans made the trip to the Front Range to see the Demons win a nailbiter against the Cardinals, 14-13, in the first round of the 3A state playoffs.
“That showed the kind of support the parents and students have of us and how dedicated they are,” Glenwood Springs senior wide receiver and defensive back Evrett Marr said. “Here they had driven 2 ½ hours to come and see us, and they were doing all they could to cheer and drown out all of the Elizabeth fans, who took up three-quarters of the stands. That was pretty cool to see.”
Glenwood didn’t lose very many people off of that playoff roster, which leaves the Demons as one of the favorites to contend for the 3A WSL championship. One of those returners is Marr, whose 23 receptions and 503 all-purpose yards from the 2013 season is tops among the Demons’ returning players.
Meanwhile, the Demons are trying to build their momentum off of last year’s success not only with the returning players they have, but with the confidence they built from last year’s playoff run. But things like that aren’t the only things that get people into the stands.
“I think a lot of it is just that we’re young people in the community and we have a lot of ties around town, weather we work for some of the businesses or have a lot of family in town,” Marr said. “But there’s a big thing with the community about everyone going to the games on Friday night just because that’s the place to be.”
Roaring Fork senior Adrain Chavez loved being in the spotlight last season and, when he wasn’t able to be in it again, it was almost as painful as the injury that sidelined him.
During the Rams’ home game against rival Aspen on Sept. 6 of last year, Chavez started the game as one of the Rams’ kickoff returners. He was out by halftime when he started feeling pain in his left leg, and he eventually had to sit out the remainder of the game while the Rams won, 20-17, for their first victory over the Skiers in six seasons.
Chavez joined his teammates in the euphoria they felt in beating their top football rival for the first time in more than half a decade. He admitted, however, that it would have felt so much better if he’d been in uniform and on the field.
“I loved being able to be out there in front of everybody with my teammates,” Chavez said. “I just wished so much ... that I could have finished the game.”
The senior wide receiver and safety, however, had to sit on the sideline until the final game of the season at Lake County in Leadville. Though he played a limited role, Chavez played kicker for the first time in his life and wound up making an extra point in the Rams’ 45-22 victory.
That victory gave Roaring Fork a 4-5 record to end the season and a two-game winning streak headed into its 2014 campaign. And Chavez, along with the rest of his teammates, knows how success can translate into a bigger crowd on Friday night football games in Carbondale.
“This season we’re expecting to be good,” Chavez said. “I just look back at the atmosphere that was at the Aspen game, and I know our guys really want that. And we want the fans to know we’re going to do everything we can to make them proud of us.”
CARDINALS HOPE TO SOAR AGAIN
Leon Hernandez was one of the players on a Grand Valley High football team that made a lot of people in Parachute proud not long ago. The Cardinals posted an 8-1 regular season in 2012 and reached the Class 2A state playoffs before falling in that first-round game to Middle Park.
Last year was different, however. Grand Valley dropped seven of its nine games during the 2013 regular season, but the Cardinals’ two victories were forfeited due to the use of an ineligible player. Longtime head coach Mike Johnson resigned not long afterward.
Still, the support of the players on the team has never wavered, especially on game days.
“I think it all comes down to culture, because people all have a place to go on Friday nights,” Hernandez said. “All the parents come and all of the students come, and there’s even a bunch of little kids running around everywhere. And all of those little kids look up to everyone on the field. That really means something to us.”
With that, Hernandez, who comes into the season as the Cardinals’ starting quarterback, knows that the on-field success the team brings will make a difference in how many people come to watch them play.
“It would help a lot,” Hernandez said. “When we made it to the state playoffs a lot, that’s when a lot of people would show up. And when we went back into a slump, the numbers started to dwindle. It’s pretty simple. People want to go see a winning team.”
CHANGING THE CULTURE AT COAL RIDGE
Max Bettle echoed the sentiments of Hernandez in his own way.
“I’m not sure,” the Coal Ridge senior said in response to a question regarding why people attend Coal Ridge football games. “And that’s especially taking into consideration the season we just had.”
The one game that Coal Ridge did win in 2013 came by forfeit to Grand Valley in the regular-season finale between the teams on Oct. 25. Regardless, there’s a big fan base at the school that supports the team through thick and thin.
“A lot of our crowd is people that we know that we go to class with every day,” Bettle continued. “They’d like to see their classmates excel on the field. I think a lot of it is that, plus there’s a lot of parents who want to see their kids succeed.”
Coal Ridge, which has lost 13 consecutive games on the field dating back to the 2012 season, made strides toward that last year. The Titans held an early lead against eventual state-playoff qualifier Aspen and, following a loss to annual playoff contender Bayfield, received plenty of praise from the Bayfield coaching staff.
It left a lot of optimism that the 2014 season would be much better — and that plenty of people will be there to see it.
“There’s people who are going to come out and support you no matter what, especially the people who really care,” Bettle said. “But there’s a lot of people who just want to see a team dominate. And when you live so close to powerhouses like Glenwood and Rifle, they attract more attention.
“People want to see a dominant team,” he continued. “That’s what we’re striving for, too.”