Bears ready for battle in tough 3A WSL
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
RIFLE, Colorado – The Rifle Bears were one play away from a possible playoff berth last year.
That one play was a 3-yard touchdown run by Glenwood Springs quarterback Luke Jacob on the last play of the final regular season game. The 20-19 Demon victory left Rifle on the playoff sidelines with a 6-4 record while the Demons went on to a state runner-up finish in Class 3A.
This year, Rifle brings a more experienced team to battle in what head coach Damon Wells calls the toughest and most competitive Western Slope League he’s seen in his coaching career.
“This will be our toughest schedule ever,” he said. Even though the Bears will open with three non-conference games against Class 2A opponents, those teams are very talented.
Rifle will rely on a potent running game featuring junior Ryan Moeller, who will be one of the most feared backs in the league. The bruising all-conference back was one of the most potent runners in the league in 2010.
The entire backfield returns for the Bears’ Wing T offense – Moeller and seniors Taylor Webb and Brandon Kittle.
The quarterback position will be handled by junior Adam Rice, who played tight end last season.
Wells said they will rely heavily on the running game as usual, but he expects the offense to be much more balanced this season.
“We’ve taken a significant step to throwing the football. We will be a little more diverse offensively compared to last year,” he said.
Wells said they will have seven starters returning this season. But it’s the player who isn’t returning that will be the biggest challenge facing the Bears.
Austin Booth was a talented receiver for the Bears as a junior. During the subsequent basketball season, the young man died on Jan. 17, 2010, from complications from the flu.
Wells said the biggest key this season is how the team adjusts and handles the adversity of that tragedy.
“Our ability to successfully deal with Austin’s passing, our ability to deal with that tragedy, will be difficult,” Wells said. “It’s something we still deal with every day.”
The players got together and decided to honor Booth with a small sticker on the back of their helmets this season.
To succeed in 2011, Wells said they will have to play physically.
Defensively, Wells said the Bears will move to an odd-man front, which will allow them to implement different blitz packages.
Experienced senior linebackers Alex Copeland and A.J. Cordova and speedy defensive back Webb will anchor the defense.
Looking back at last year’s 6-4 team, Wells can quickly identify two factors the 2011 Bears will have to improve on: turnovers and “finishing.”
He said they fumbled 27 times and they held the lead in nine of their 10 games last year.
In the simplest of terms, Wells says success comes down to turnovers – reducing turnovers on offense and creating turnovers on the defensive side of the ball.
Wells remains frustrated with the state Class 3A playoff format, which utilizes “wildcard points” to pick the final four teams. The top two teams from each league get an automatic berth.
Even with the difficult non-conference schedule, a schedule that was picked by Rifle’s previous head coach, the Bears will still play three Class 2A schools (Grand Valley, Coal Ridge and Olathe), which won’t add much to their “wildcard points” even if they win.
To make the playoffs, Rifle will probably need a top-two league finish, Wells said.
Wells led Rifle to the Class 3A state title game in 2005, where they lost to Florence. In 2004, Rifle won the state title under Darrel Gorham.
Both those teams finished fourth in the WSL and wouldn’t have even qualified for the playoffs under the current structure.
“That’s what was so disappointing about last year. We felt like we could play with anyone at the end of last year,” Wells said.
Rifle had a total of 70 players come out for football this year, which has Wells excited about the future of the program.
Wells said that he can already see that the 2011 Bears are a special team and their success won’t necessarily be measured by wins and loses.
“It’s fun being around these kids. These are really enjoyable kids to be around,” he said.
As for the season, the veteran coach again says that adjusting to the tragic loss of a talented and popular teammate will be the key.
“We must be focused on not forgetting and still remembering Austin, but it can’t be an anchor for this team,” he said.
Rifle begins its season at Grand Valley on Friday.
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