Rifle football returns atop 2A WSL with target on its back

Head Coach: Damon Wells, 13th year

Last Season: 9-2 overall, 4-1 in 2A Western Slope League, won 2A WSL, lost to Resurrection Christian 21-14 in first round of 2A playoffs

Key Returners: Levi Warfel, Sr.; Kenny Tlaxcala, Sr.; Holden Stutsman, Sr.; Ariel Herrera, Sr.; Ethan Mackley, Sr.; Carter Pressler, Sr.; Talon Cordova, Sr.;

Players to Watch: Embrey Marantino, Sr.; Gabe Burris, Sr.

The Rifle Bears football team made the move down from Class 3A to 2A last season and really didn’t skip a beat.

Aside from a missed field goal in the closing seconds to a surprise Aspen team, Rifle would have gone undefeated in 2A on its way to a league championship. Instead, Rifle went 4-1 and won the 2A Western Slope League in its first season at the 2A level before falling in the playoffs to Resurrection Christian 21-14 in the first round.

The Bears are back for Year 2 in the 2A WSL and are the favorites. However, the Bears have to replace quite a few key pieces from last season’s team, including all-state fullback Tanner Vines, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards for the second straight year, as well as all-state caliber center Wyatt Warfel. Fortunately for Rifle, the Bears return senior linemen Ethan Mackley and Ariel Herrera, as well as 1,000-yard running back Levi Warfel and another experienced back in Talon Cordova, giving head coach Damon Wells plenty of experience to work with.

Having a guy like Warfel back will help ease the burden of trying to replace one of the best backs in program history after Vines moved on to Colorado Mesa University’s football program.

“Levi has a ton of experience for us,” Wells said. “He understands what’s needed from him, so he’s worked his butt off for this program and he’s ready to shoulder a heavy workload.”

Warfel won’t have his brother back to block for him for the first time in three years, but the Bears have two leaders in Herrera and Mackley who will carry the load up front in Rifle’s wing-T offense.

“I don’t know that we will replace Wyatt’s leadership and experience, but we look for a different type of leadership from kids,” Wells said. “Ariel is going to be a four-year starter for us, and Ethan Mackley has grown up in this program and will be a three-year starter for us. They’ve both played in a number of playoff games for us, and the beauty with those kids is that they’ve put in the work and know what’s expected.”

Defensively, the Bears bring back quite a bit of experience and athleticism under defensive coordinator Jeremy O’Donnell, highlighted by Kenny Tlaxcala, Carter Pressler, Herrera and Warfel. The majority of the defense, which recorded 13 sacks, 10 interceptions and allowed just 11.9 points per game, returns. That’s great news for Rifle and bad news for opponents.

“I think one thing is that we had a lot of success, but then we changed everything before the season,” Wells said. “Now, especially since they’re high school kids, it’s normal to them. Hopefully the learning curve is lesser now than it was last year.”

Despite losing some key players, Rifle brings back a lot of talent and experience from last season’s league championship team. Knowing that, Rifle should again push for the league championship as they host Coal Ridge, Delta and Moffat County this season, while traveling to Basalt and Aspen this fall, as well as a trip to Glenwood Springs Sept. 27 for the annual rivalry matchup.

Rifle opens the regular season Friday at home against Grand Valley.

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