Champions: Rifle Bears clinch state title
Rifle Senior Embrey Marantino had just finished the game with 201 yards and two touchdowns. Riding the bus back to Rifle, it took just two words for him to sum up how it felt to win the 3A state title:
“Like, if you would’ve asked me two or three months ago if we would’ve even been in the playoffs, I would’ve said heck no,” Marantino added. “I didn’t even think we were going to make it to the playoffs, much less win the state final. But a lot of us have been playing since we were six and seven… we’ve been playing for a long time, and it’s just a very special brotherhood we share. We’re trying to prove how strong it is and just how amazing we’ve done and how much we can stick together, and that’s what really won it for us.”
It turned out to be an incredible turn of events for Rifle High School football.
After The Classical Academy offense came out swinging within minutes of the 3A title game beginning at Colorado State University in Pueblo on Saturday, the Bears kept their composure, stayed the course and eventually nabbed a nail-biting 35-34 win.
“It was hard fought for,” Rifle senior Kaden Wolf, who cheered from the sidelines due to an injury suffered against Glenwood Springs, told KMTS Radio after the game. “We love our town and we love our community.”
“Without a doubt, they picked it up,” Wolf added about his fellow running backs, junior Toto Fletchall and senior Marantino. “They played harder than I’ve ever seen them play.”
Down 20-13 going into the third quarter, the Bears would score two critical touchdowns over the first 14 minutes of the second half. In fact, the Titans wouldn’t gain back possession of the ball until nearly the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter.
Because Rifle opted to defer the opening kick after winning the coin toss, they took possession to start the second half and marched downfield with a cascade of clock-eating short runs via senior Marantino and Fletchall. They’d help Rifle get to the red zone before facing a critical 4th down and 4 yards to go.
Junior starting quarterback Trey Caldwell would keep the ball and rush for 7 yards to get the first down. The next play, Fletchall bash it in for a short score.
But down 20-19, head coach Todd Casebier made the gutsy play to go for an extra two points. The move paid off as Caldwell connected with junior Gavin Peterson, putting the Bears up 21-20 at 2:44 in the third quarter.
As if that wasn’t enough excitement, the very next play Casebier gave his special teams the nod to try an onside kick. With Rifle sophomore kicker Javier Diaz catching the Titans off guard, Rifle would recover it at midfield.
“First of all, you practice those situations and you sell your team on the fact that not only are we going to go, we’ve got to execute it,” Casebier said. “Remember, they’re just another call in the game but you practice the situation and explain the importance of it to your team and ultimately they’ve got to execute it. It’s something that I’ve always believed in and done, and our coaching staff was outstanding.”
Not squandering the opportunity, Marantino would eventually run to the ball to the Titans’ 27-yard line. This would later set up Fletchall for another touchdown run within the 10-yard line. After a good point-after kick, Rifle sat on top of the Titans 28-20 at 10:13 in the fourth quarter.
“I didn’t know they were going to be that explosive,” Casebier said of The Classical Academy’s offense. “Knowing we had the ball coming out, I told the kids at halftime the plan was to get a good, solid kick return, go down and score, go for two and take the lead and then onside kick and recover and go score again. That’s exactly what we talked about and darned if our kids did exactly that.”
Casebier said his team’s second-half efforts truly turned the game around.
“Our defense started playing better,” he said. “TC started to have to earn it. Coach (Tim) Place started making adjustments at halftime because you’re talking about an elite athlete, this (Cade) Palmer.”
But the Bears still had a long way to go. They had to somehow stop Titans running back Cade Palmer, who eventually amassed more than 300 yards in the game, and they still had to do something to stop all the other Titans’ offensive weapons.
The Titans took possession and marched all the way to Rifle’s 11-yard line. On 3rd and 3, junior Titans starting quarterback Sam Guilez would connect with sophomore receiver Jake Jennings at 8:28 left in regulation.
Down 28-26, the Titans would go for two extra points via hand-off to Palmer. The Division I college prospect, however, would be stopped short at the 1-yard line.
The next possession, the Bears would eventually face fourth down and 1 yard to go deep in their own zone. Marantino, however, would take a handoff and scamper 70 yards unscathed for the long touchdown run. With the good point after, the Bears would go up 35-26 at 6:15 in the fourth quarter.
But the Titans fought back. A few plays later on their possession, Palmer would blow past Rifle’s defense for a long, 46-yard touchdown run. This time, Titans head coach Justin Rich gave his offense to nod to go for 2 extra points. And this time, they’d connect on a heart-stopping flea-flicker. Yet Rifle remained on top with a very fragile 35-34 lead.
Then, on the very next possession, Rifle fumbled the ball over to The Classical Academy with less than 4 minutes to play. With victory quite literally less than a half a football field away, however, Bears junior outside linebacker Josh Avila would wrap up Palmer on a run, strip the ball away and recover the loose ball.
“I can’t really remember,” Avila joked of the play while on the bus ride home. “(Palmer) ran to my side and our whole team was on him and we made a big collision and I saw his arm was flying there and I did my best to strip it… But I couldn’t have done that without my teammates.”
Marantino had to hold back the emotion when he saw Avila make the biggest play of the game.
“When I saw that Josh stripped the ball, I could’ve fallen down and cried,” He said. “I was so close to doing that, I had to maintain myself from crying because that’s exactly what we needed. We all knew what we needed, but we didn’t say we needed to get the ball back, we needed to get the strip. We didn’t say any of that and Josh went out there and he stood up and he kicked butt. That’s exactly what we needed.”
The play would eventually solidify Rifle’s come-from-behind victory. Marantino would get one more first down on the next possession and Caldwell would kneel in victory formation.
It’s worth noting, Avila suffered an injury early in the season and was out until the second round of the playoffs — the win against Glenwood Springs.
“My struggles this year, at the beginning of the season I tore my hamstring and I let that get the best of me, so I would be a jerk in class, not respect the teacher… ya know, I wasn’t being a good athlete,” he said. “But, lately, since I’ve been healed I’ve been overcoming it and my coach talked to me about it and told me I need to stop doing that and be a good person because that’s what this sport’s about. It builds character.”
Casebier also acknowledged Avila’s play and what it took to get there.
“For Josh, that was a huge play,” Casebier said. “Him and I have had our frustrations this year and I was so happy for him to make a play when it mattered because Josh is a good player and we haven’t been able to utilize him just because there’s been some things that have come up that he hasn’t done his part, and today he did. He got the job done today in the biggest moment of the game. He caused the fumble and he recovered it.”
In the first half, of course, The Classical Academy came out and punched the Bears hard in the mouth.
Palmer would draw first blood, scoring on a 27-yard dash into the endzone. It was a 54-second scoring drive.
Rifle would try to answer back, putting forth a 10-play drive. But after making it to the Titans’ 48-yard line, the Bears were forced to punt. This set up a 75-yard scoring drive for the Titans, with sophomore running back Ethan Aragundi scoring at 6:02 in the first quarter.
The play meant the Titans amassed 161 yards on their first 9 plays on offense.
Down 14-0, however, Rifle began to chip away at the Titans’ defense. Casebier’s ground-and-pound offense slowly made their way downfield. Getting the ball to the Titans’ 36-yard line, junior quarterback Trey Caldwell would toss it to junior Gavin Peterson, who connected with sophomore receiver Kade Bishop for their first touchdown of the game.
“I think the way we run the ball, people have to load the box to stop our run game, and that’s what we needed to do,” Casebier said. “Gavin Peterson had a great throw to Kade Bishop for the first touchdown.”
With a good extra point after, Rifle trailed 14-7 at 10:51 in the second quarter.
On their next possession, The Classical Academy would drive downfield to their 41-yard line via a nice Palmer run. In the next play, Palmer blew past Rifle’s secondary for a 59-yard touchdown run. After a failed 2-point conversion, the Titans were up 20-7 at 9:07 in the second quarter.
Rifle, however, would answer right back. This time, after marching downfield with several successful runs made by Fletchall, Marantino would get in the scoring mix, bashing the ball past the plane for a 2-yard score.
Rifle would miss the extra point, but would now trail 20-13 at 3:05 left in the first half.
Arguably one of the biggest sequences of the game for Rifle came on the next Titans drive. The Classical Academy drove all the way to the Bears’ 36 yard-line. The Bears’ defense, however, would remain stout, stopping the Titans before they could score going into halftime.
Casebier praised his offense for also stepping up in lieu of Wolf’s absence.
“Our backs, Embrey Marantino, Toto Fletchall, Gavin Peterson, Trey Caldwell, everybody that carried the ball had to do the job because we lost one of our great players in Kaden Wolf,” he said. “And everybody had to pick up the slack, so Embrey was a warrior on both ends of the ball, but I thought Toto ran the ball extremely well.”
The win marks the fourth state title in Rifle’s history. The underdog Bears, ranked No. 4 at the start of the 3A playoffs, ended the season with a 7-2 overall record.
The odds stacked against them, the battle-tested Bears overcame two formidable opponents in order to hoist their hardware.
In the first round, the Bears hosted No. 5 The Academy and ended up nabbing a hard-fought 28-20 victory.
Then, taking a stab at redemption, Rifle scored in overtime to beat a No. 1-ranked, high-octane offense team in the Glenwood Springs Demons 20-17 at Stubler Field on May 8. The Demons, of course, previously upended the Bears 22-15 at home in the regular season on April 16.
The Bears’ solid start to the 2021 season was also thrown a curveball as Basalt handily bested them 38-7 on April 30.
Meanwhile, the once undefeated, No. 2-ranked Titans ended their season run with a 6-1 overall record — their only loss of the season courtesy of Rifle.
The Titans’ season has been nothing but dominant. Not only were they undefeated but their stout defense only gave up 19 points all regular season.
For Casebier, he’s just happy his kids got a chance to experience something so great.
“The first thing is, our kids got to play the great game of football all over this state and get back what we all took for granted with sports in general before COVID,” he said. “Our kids got to experience the great game of football together as a team and the highs and lows of that come from being able to play football, so I’m thankful we got the chance to do that.”
Asked how he’s going to celebrate and win, Avila kept it simple.
“Go home and go to sleep,” he said.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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