Rifle football bound for 3A spring title game after defeating Glenwood 20-17 in overtime
No. 4 Bears will face No. 2 The Classical Academy May 15 in Pueblo
Fans, players and coaches on both sides of Stubler Memorial Field seemed to know it would come down just the way it did, regardless of who had the ball at the end.
With the ball on the 1-yard line in overtime, it was the fourth-seeded Rifle Bears who got the last word when junior Toto Fletchall sealed the deal, following his linemen across the goal line to give Rifle the 20-17 3A state semifinal win.
Just minutes earlier, No. 1 Glenwood Springs had to settle for a Tyler Thomas field goal after the Bears won the toss and elected to defend the goal in the alternating possession overtime format, with each team getting the ball at the 10-yard line.
Defend they did — as Rifle had done so well all game long against a potent Demons running game — forcing a pair of short gains and an incomplete pass to keep the home team out of the end zone.
After the winning touchdown, Bears senior running back Kaden Wolf, who left the game in the first half with a leg injury, gave his junior understudy a big hug and yelled, “Holy s—, we’re going to state!”
Rifle (6-2) will face the No. 2 seed, The Classical Academy (6-0) Titans, at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 15 at the CSU-Pueblo Thunderbowl for the state title; culminating what started as a short-schedule eight-team playoff field last week. The Titans were 39-13 winners over No. 6 Sand Creek on Saturday.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Fletchall said after the game. “We were at the goal line, my line pushed hard, I heard my number and I just got behind my pads and behind my linemen and we just pushed as hard as we could, and I got in.”
As big as that and Rifle’s two first-half touchdowns were, Fletchall hung the win on the Bears’ defensive effort.
“Defense, man, they put up a fight,” he said. “Our offense made a lot of mistakes, but we fought hard. And my line just did great. I can’t do it without them.”
First-year Rifle head coach Todd Casebier called timeout when the Bears pushed the ball inside the 1 with their overtime possession on a pair of Fletchall and junior Broc Caldwell runs.
“That’s why I called timeout just to say, ‘look, it’s coming down to 3 feet. Everything you guys have done, been living in the shadow of the 2019 Rifle team, all the talk about coach (Damon Wells) not being here and you getting a new coach and COVID and guys getting hurt and blah, blah, blah.
“This is it. It’s 3 feet to go to Pueblo. Either we get it or we’re going to talk about it for a long time why we didn’t.’”
Rifle had been the No. 1 seed going into the fall 2019 Class 2A playoffs before getting upended by Basalt in the second round.
All of the scoring in regulation Saturday came in the first half, followed by a defense-driven second half that saw some miscues from both offenses.
Both teams scored on their opening possessions of the game; a pair of long drives that ate up the entire first-quarter clock.
Rifle struck first on an 80-yard drive highlighted by a pair of pass completions from junior quarterback Trey Caldwell to brother Broc Caldwell for a 27-yard gain and to Wolf for 7 yards. That set Trey Caldwell up for the 4-yard touchdown run.
The host Demons answered right back with an 83-yard drive of their own. Powered by the legs of the junior-senior running back tandem of Blake Nieslanik and Garret Dollahan, Glenwood knotted it at 7-7 on Dollahan’s touchdown run, followed by the extra point from Tyler Thomas.
Glenwood looked to turn the tide early in the second quarter when senior cornerback Jeffrey Lowe intercepted a Trey Caldwell pass at the Bears 45. Another methodical Demons drive ended with a touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Joaquin Sandoval to senior Wheatley Nieslanik.
Up 14-7, a fumble recovery at the Rifle 40 for the Demons with inside 5 minutes to play in the half might have turned the tables completely. But the Bears turned the defense up another notch, throwing Glenwood for a loss on a quarterback sack, then forcing Glenwood to turn it over on downs.
The Bears again advanced the ball on a long Caldwell-to-Caldwell pass play with 1:20 to play in the half. The two connected again with 19 ticks left for the touchdown, and the teams went into the locker room tied at 14.
From then on, it was all defense, as turnovers and key stops set up the overtime after 24 scoreless minutes.
Rifle was set up for a possible score with a little over four minutes to play in the third quarter, when Demons senior Stephen Morris stepped in front of a Caldwell pass to the goal line, picking it off and forcing a key Bears turnover.
Later in the game, Glenwood was threatening to score inside 3 minutes to play in regulation after Sandoval connected to junior Evan Heyl. A couple of plays later, on third and 11, Sandoval was looking to Wheatley Nieslanik up the middle when the ball went off the receiver’s finger tips and into the hands of Rifle sophomore Javani Gonzalez.
“To be honest, I didn’t even know it was in my hand,” Gonzalez said after the game. “I saw it tipped up, and I looked down and it was in my hands so I started running but I got tripped up.”
He also said the game came down to the Bears’ never-give-up defense.
“Without the defense, I don’t think we would be this far, because our offense? A little sloppy, I’m gonna be honest.”
Another key play for the Bears came with 1:11 to play in regulation. At fourth down and six to go from their own 40, Rifle sent senior Embrey Marantino in to punt. Strong winds had kept most of the northbound punts short all day, but Marantino got all of it, booting it 37 yards to the Demons’ 23.
After Glenwood went three-and-out, Dollahan also had a nice punt for the Demons with 16 seconds left to keep Rifle from making a late threat in regulation.
Casebier credited Trey Caldwell for hanging tough against the Demons’ pressure.
“Our quarterback had an opportunity to run some different stuff and he hung in there, man, and our offensive line carried us today.”
Added Rifle assistant coach Tim Place, “Our young people did a heck of a job. At halftime, we just reemphasized what we were trying to do, and the young people came out in the second half and executed.”
Glenwood senior tackle Nolan McPherson said the game was a total “dog fight” from beginning to end.
“Just two good teams really just going at it, so that’s all I have to say about that game. It was a dog fight.
“We definitely put everything we had out there,” he said. “I know our defense, every single one of us was fighting there for each other, just playing our hearts out because we knew that this was our last game we had guaranteed.”
Third-year Glenwood Springs head coach Patrick Engle said he wouldn’t have expected anything different from two very good teams Saturday.
“We knew it was going to be a really tough game, absolutely, and this time they had the possession at the end. They did what they needed to do, so hats off to them,” Engle said.
After multiple years of lop-sided games between Glenwood and Rifle before the Demons finally got a win in this spring’s regular season, 22-15 over the Bears, Engle said this one may have been the best ever, at least in recent history.
“They obviously played well against our run game,” he said. “We had our opportunities, and it seemed like we made a few mistakes that we haven’t made in a while.
“That’s just the way, sometimes, it goes. You make a couple of mistakes, and unfortunately the ball didn’t bounce our way there in the second half.”
The Demons’ Blake Nieslanik also knew deep down that whichever team had the ball last on Saturday was likely going to be the victor.
“We played good for most of the game, but we just couldn’t put it all together,” he said. “That’s just what happens sometimes.”
Nieslanik said he’ll soon turn his focus to next fall, when Glenwood will most likely be playing its usual 3A Western Slope League opponents and looking to get back to the playoffs again.
To do that will mean “more time in the weight room, and to get stronger as a team,” he said. “If we put in the work, it’s very possible we can do it again next year.”
For the championship, Rifle faces a team that also plays at the 2A level in a normal year, same as the Bears’ usual classification. The Classical Academy comes from the Tri-Peaks League.
With the split season this year due to the pandemic, though, some 3A teams, including Glenwood, were lumped in with 2A schools for the one-off spring season.
The Classical Academy played in the revamped 3A East with a grouping of Front Range powerhouses, including Littleton and Kent Denver.
Fletchall said he and his fellow Bears teammates need to get into the right mindset this coming week before the big game.
“It’s going to be a physical game just like this one, just like a lot of the games we played in during the playoffs,” he said. “This is for the championship, so they’re coming to play. We’ve got to come out, go out and practice hard and be ready for them.”
Casebier said the team hopes to have Wolf back for the championship game. Even if he doesn’t, though, he said he can count on his senior team leader to rally the troops from the sideline, as he did after leaving the game Saturday.
“That’s the kind of kid he is — he’s a great character kid,” the coach said. “Like I told him, he’s had one injury after another his whole career. And he’s not a victim. He’s going to be a champion in his whole life. But, man, I’m disappointed for him because he deserved to be here and I hope we get him for next week.”
Glenwood ends the season at 7-1.
The semifinal football playoff game was the last for a strong Demons senior corps, including:
Wheatley Nieslanik, Tyler Thomas, Elo Garcia, Nate Sandoval, Brian Delgado, Garrett Dollahan, Jeffrey Lowe, Nick Blankenship, Stephen Morris, Jo Ritter, Ian Cecil-Hoerl, Zach Cecil-Hoerl, Trevor Champion, Sebastian Garcia, Tommy McMahon, Crosby McMahon, Brady Porter, Nolan McPherson and Jeremy Bradshaw.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.
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