Mask requirement doesn’t stifle Rifle basketball teams’ excitement to be back on the court |

Mask requirement doesn’t stifle Rifle basketball teams’ excitement to be back on the court

Rifle senior Mackenzie Elizardo awaits to run a drill during practice Tuesday. Ray K. Erku / Citizen Telegram

The last stretch of a lengthy, sweaty practice was rewarded with a grueling full-court-press scrimmage.

As the players shuffled and screeched their sneakers in the backcourt, frantically trying to intercept a pass-in from the baseline, Rifle High School girls head coach Eric Caro shrieked from the sideline.

“You guys got to be ready!” he pitched during Tuesday’s practice. “Just be big, just be big!”

Though COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges conditions to ever face Colorado high school sports, it hasn’t tampered with everyone’s excitement. Just ask the seniors especially — their determination to experience just one more tipoff is unwavering.

Rifle High School girls basketball hard at it during a Tuesday night practice. Ray K. Erku / Citizen Telegram

Sporting one of the many sleek Under Armour masks the basketball program purchased for $500, senior Mackenzie Elizardo was a lot more excited about being able to play than having to wear a face cover.

“It’s definitely tough but it’s manageable,” she said. “ … You get used to it over time. You’re just going to have to keep it up. If not, you’re not going to get used to it.”

Since the mask isn’t disposable, it definitely requires upkeep, especially when the Rifle girls are already well into their second week of practice.

“I wash it every day,” Elizardo said.

But no matter — the season is back and Elizardo is just happy to be on the court again. She was asked what she looks forward to most with the upcoming season, which starts tonight with a cross-county battle against Grand Valley High School.

“Team bonding, being together with the team and just being able to play games,” she said.

There’s no arguing it’s been a wild, emotional ride for everyone involved in Western Slope athletics. The Colorado High School Activities Association has for months been heavily lobbying the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to try and get the ball rolling for Season B sports.

In fact, multiple delays and setbacks throughout the past couple months have prompted thorough discussion amongst the Garfield Re-2 school board and have created logistical nightmares for athletic directors, coaches and parents across the state.

Rifle High School girls basketball players battle down low during a Tuesday night practice. Ray K. Erku / Citizen Telegram

Right now, Re-2 programs are allowing up to 50 home fans, 24 players shared between each team as well as all the essential elements: referees, scorekeepers and coaches, among others.

But amid the misgivings and frustrations in the fight against COVID-19, it’s ultimately the student/athletes who feel the most impact.

Senior teammate Katelyn Mentink said the Bears did everything they could to prepare for when the greenlight was given. This included summer workouts, attending open gyms, running around the track and lifting weights, she said.

“It was kind of hard knowing that we might not have a season, but at the same time we were able to prepare so we were ready if we were going to have the opportunity to have a season,” she said. “So we weren’t just waiting around — we were taking action.”

As for having to wear the masks all the time?

“It kind of just adds to the difficulty,” Mentink said. “But it’s kind of like conditioning ourselves to wear the masks longer.”

After the girls finished up their final drill of the night Tuesday, it was time for Rifle High School boys basketball team to take the floor.

Rifle senior Mackenzie Elizardo shoots from beyond out of bounds during practice Tuesday. Ray K. Erku / Citizen Telegram

The electricity was so palpable that instead of leaving, the girls sat next to their gear and simply watched. Practice has never been so sweet.

During drills, senior Diego Fernandez was pulled aside and asked his thoughts on the upcoming season.

“I’m very happy actually,” he said. “I had thought we weren’t going to have a season at all, to be honest, ever since this whole pandemic thing started. I’m glad to be back.”

Like his female counterparts, Ferndandez said he also spent his off time preparing for the tentative season. This included hitting the weight room, playing pick-up games at the park and taking advantage of open gyms, he said.

Fernandez, who wears disposable masks, has already gone through six since practices began last week.

“It’s a little difficult sometimes,” he said. “It’s harder to breathe for sure, but I feel like I’m starting to get more and more used to it as time goes by.”

Senior teammate Alonso Ruiz said he’s also just happy to get back to the action.

“I’m pretty excited since it’s been a long year,” he said. “I’m just grateful I have the opportunity to play, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Ruiz added: “I just want to enjoy my last year, have fun playing and just leave it all out there.”

Rifle High School boys basketball executes drills during a Tuesday night practice. Ray K. Erku / Citizen Telegram

Another senior teammate, Tyler Pierce, was also asked his thoughts on the unique season and closing out his senior year.

“Going through these four years hard as you can, you never know if you’re going to have a senior season,” he said. “It’s complicated but at the end of the day you’re just happy to be here again.”

• Rifle girls @ Grand Valley, 6 p.m. Thursday

• Rifle boys @ Grand Valley, 7 p.m. Thursday

“Basketball means everything to me. It’s just something I’ve always known,” he added. “It makes me happy, and playing with these dudes… they’re my family basically, and it’s all I want.”

Beyond all the challenges, however, one thing’s for sure: tonight’s matchups against Grand Valley couldn’t come any sooner. For Coach Caro, he said he can already see the twinkle in his players’ eyes.

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