Bears hope to return to top of Class 3A football
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
RIFLE, Colorado – Damon Wells still has lots of fond memories of Rifle High School’s 2004 football season.
The present-day Bears head coach, who was an assistant under Darrel Gorham that fall, can remember all of the games leading up to Rifle’s state title tilt against Sterling. He can remember the signs people put up on businesses around town, the support the community gave the team and, especially, the final score of that Class 3A state title game at Bears Stadium.
Rifle 7, Sterling 6.
The Bears did return to the title game the following season and lost to Florence, 35-14, and plenty of the stories told to this year’s team focused around that season, too.
“We told the kids that, invariably, when the week is over, you have time to pause and think about how fun it was and what a great thing it was,” Wells said. “We told them that today, and that was in an effort to try to afford them the opportunity to really appreciate the week they’ve worked so hard to earn.”
Silver Creek High School, which is located in Longmont and is just one year removed from a 14-7 loss to Windsor in the 2011 title game, has more recent memories of playing for a state title. And the players the Raptors bring back from that team, though few, are telling stories of their own.
The final chapter will be written at Legacy Stadium in Aurora, where top-seeded Rifle (13-0) will play No. 10 Silver Creek (11-2) for the Class 3A state championship. Kickoff is 1 p.m. Saturday.
“Our coaches always talk about leaving a legacy,” senior running back and safety Ryan Moeller said. “Every senior class leaves a legacy, whether it’s positive or not. That’s what our goal was from the beginning of our sophomore year – to leave a positive legacy here at Rifle. The seniors last year left a positive legacy, and we have been doing that and want to continue to do that.”
Legacy Stadium is the site where the legacy for both teams will be written. It will host a pair of teams whose styles of play on offense are different, but have led both to the title game.
Rifle runs a multiple offense from a flexbone formation that incorporates a tight end. The Bears rely on a strong running game, but have shown their effectiveness throwing the football.
Silver Creek uses a balanced offense, but often uses a four-wide receiver set. Raptors quarterback Ben Sjobakken throws for an average of 188.6 yards per game. Running back Josh Quiroz runs for an average of 102 yards per game.
Asked what about Rifle worries him, Silver Creek coach Mike Apodaca replied: “Everything.”
“We looked on film, and we really could identify no weaknesses,” the coach said. “A lot of attention is given to the Moeller kid, but they’re definitely not a one-trick pony.”
Moeller is Class 3A’s leading rusher with 2,857 yards and 41 touchdowns, but junior Kellin Leigh broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier in Rifle’s 56-6 semifinal victory over Pueblo East at Dutch Clark Stadium on Nov. 24. Leigh has 1,057 yards, and sophomore Isaac Rider has contributed 451 yards on just 51 carries.
Meanwhile, Sjobakken is 177-for-286 passing (61 percent) with 24 TDs and just two interceptions. Zane Lindsey (49 catches), Trey Fleming (57), Eric Machmueller (33) and Brock Ricks (40) have all seen their fair share of catches. Sjobakken threw for 154 yards and a TD in the Raptors’ 24-7 semifinal win over Conifer on Nov. 24.
Defensively, both teams have again taken different paths to success.
Silver Creek inside linebacker Andre Apodaca (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) headlines the defense and has a team-high 144 tackles this season. It’s a defense that doesn’t have anyone who also plays on offense, helping it force 35 turnovers and average two sacks per game.
Meanwhile, even though Rifle has seven players who start both ways, the Bears have only allowed 75 points to its 13 opponents while averaging 44.5 points per game on offense. Inside linebacker Cody Beauford (5-9, 180) has a team-high 122 tackles, and the Bears recorded four of their 19 sacks this past Saturday against Pueblo East.
A parallel for both teams? Rifle has seen most of its success as the underdog. In that 2004 season, the Bears won it all as the 16th seed in the 16-team tournament. And, even as the No. 1 seed in 2012, Rifle doesn’t see itself as a favorite.
“The role we’re most comfortable with is the role of the underdog,” Wells said. “Frankly, I think when a Western Slope League team plays in the finals, they might not be the underdog based on record or ranking, but schools on the Front Range get more publicity than we do.
“Our league’s track record for success speaks for itself,” he continued. “Anybody that doesn’t recognize what kind of a program we are and what kind of a league we play in, frankly, just isn’t paying attention.”
Silver Creek, however, returned just five starters off the team that reached the state championship game last season. Mike Apodaca said not many expected much from the Raptors at the start of the season with that in mind, and the players who saw time in that game are feeling more motivated then ever.
“Not a lot of people expected much out of this group,” the coach said. “The nice thing is that, despite that, everyone has a ‘let’s get to work’ attitude before this game.”
And after the game, the final chapter of both teams’ stories will be written. What stories will be told remains to be seen.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.