Rifle High football playoff run ends with 14-0 loss at Montezuma-Cortez

A host of Rifle Bears tackle Basalt senior Cooper Crawford in action earlier this season in Basalt.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Relentless defensive pressure applied by the host Montezuma-Cortez Panthers spelled the fate of the Rifle High School football team early on and throughout a 2A quarterfinal playoff game Saturday, ending in a 14-0 loss for the Bears to close the season.

The 14th-ranked Bears had beaten the No. 11 Panthers in the first game of the season way back on Sept. 2 in Rifle, 33-26.

So, on paper, it was a pretty even matchup for the Bears and Panthers, who both advanced to the second round with upset wins last week to open the playoffs — Rifle over No. 3 Florence, 14-7, and Montezuma-Cortez over No. 6 Elizabeth, 21-7.

But the Panthers capitalized on early Rifle mistakes and had junior quarterback Logan Gross running for his life behind the line of scrimmage for much of the game, as Gross succumbed to numerous sack plays.

Not even a minute into the game, Gross fumbled on a sack to give Montezuma-Cortez the ball inside the 20. Panthers sophomore Tay Wheat quickly cashed in, scrambling 19 yards for his first of two touchdowns to give the higher seed the early lead, 7-0, after the extra point kick.

Gross immediately went to the air to try go over the top of the defensive rush, but the Panthers secondary was equally up to the task.

Inside 2 minutes to play in the first quarter, what looked to be a 16-yard touchdown run for Rifle was waved off on a holding call. A short time later, again inside Panthers territory, Gross was sacked on a fourth-and-15 play, leaving the Bears to try a 37-yard field goal attempt by senior Javier Diaz, which was blocked.

Then, in the second quarter, the Bears again had a golden opportunity to score, but Gross was picked off by Montezuma-Cortez sophomore cornerback Colby McMillan in the red zone.

“They had a really good scheme with some great athletes in the back end,” Rifle head coach Ryan Whittington said afterward. “They were well-coached and executed the plan.”

It’s the first trip to the playoffs since 2014 for Montezuma-Cortez, which moves to 8-3 and will face defending state champion No. 2 Eaton, 41-7 winners over previously undefeated and seventh-ranked Basalt on Saturday, in next week’s semifinals.

Rifle — finishing at 6-5 on the season after going 3-2 in the competitive 2A League 6 — is no stranger to the postseason, having won a state championship during the one-off pandemic spring season in 2021 and finishing as runner-up in 2012 and 2014.

Montezuma-Cortez kept the pressure on in the second half, getting its second touchdown on a 13-yard run by Wheat on the heels of a 34-yard gain with 1:15 to play in the third quarter. Penalties hindered the Bears chances to get on the board, and senior running back Nicholas Saldivar was limited to just 42 yards on the afternoon.

The Bears had other opportunities, including a fourth-down play early in the fourth quarter when Gross’s pass went off the hands of junior Joel Valencia, in the end zone. Gross exited the game with a little over 5 minutes to play due to injury, and backup quarterback, sophomore Tryston Sheets, couldn’t find any more answers to the Panthers stout defense.

Rifle did hold its own on the defensive side of the ball, keeping the game in check and recording six sacks on Panthers senior quarterback Jake Blackmer.

“I’m proud of our boys for how hard they played despite our mistakes,” Whittington said. “I’m especially proud of our seniors who tried to get us back on track.”

It was the final game in a Bears jersey for nine seniors, including Saldivar, Diaz, Brandon Marques, Preston Byrd, Austin Bowlan, Xane Kusserow, Aaron Silva, Kyton Rew and Kade Street.

In the other 2A playoff games Saturday, it was top-seeded Delta 37-8 over No. 8 Alamosa, and No. 4 The Classical Academy 44-12 over No. 12 University.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.