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Rifle prepares for highly anticipated playoff game with Glenwood Springs

The Rifle High School football team poses for a picture on Tuesday. They prepare to play Glenwood Springs in a critical 3A playoff game Saturday afternoon.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Former Rifle Bears standout turned starting running back for Western Colorado University Ty Leyba remembers it like it was yesterday.

“I think my best one was actually in the headline in the newspaper the next morning on the front page,” the 2016 Rifle graduate recalled. “It was a long touchdown on one of the first drives against Glenwood.”

It was the Colorado High School Activities Association Class 3A 1st Team All-Stater’s junior year. The win was so good, during an internship at a Glenwood Springs accounting firm sometime later, Leyba said he’d sneakily pin the newspaper clipping to his boss’s office door. The head honcho, of course, was a Demons football coach.



Come Saturday, however, the saga of the Rifle (5-2 overall, 4-2 conference) and Glenwood Springs (7-0 overall, 6-0 conference) rivalry will extend beyond office mischief carried out by notable alma mater and once again head to the gridiron. No 4-seeded Rifle, after beating a stout Academy team in the first round of the 3A playoffs, will suit up against No. 1-seeded Glenwood Springs.

The undefeated Demons trounced No. 8 Northfield 56-13 at Stubler Memorial Field on May 1, thereby securing home-field advantage against Rifle in the semifinals slated for May 8.



The game comes after Glenwood, a solid, state title contender that bested Rifle 22-15 earlier this season, has more or less suffered a decade-string of losses to the Bears, a typically well-known football powerhouse in the Western Slope.

Prior to this season, in fact, the last time Glenwood beat Rifle was in 2010.

“My senior year, we kind of blew them out of the water,” Leyba said. “But other than that, every year it was just a really competitive, hard-fought game. It was one of those games, it didn’t matter what you were ranked in the state. Glenwood always brought firepower against us, and they just wanted to beat us.”

Interestingly enough, however, the rivalry isn’t always limited to the towns’ boundaries.

GLENWOOD FATHER, RIFLE SON

Leyba’s father, Carlos Leyba, is a Glenwood Springs graduate of 1989. But ever since his son started playing for Rifle, he got so involved with Bears football he’d become their booster club president for some time.

So, for Carlos, Saturday’s highly anticipated spectacle is a time for some pigskin soul searching.

“I’m so torn; it’s hard,” he said. “It’s so cool to see Rifle and Glenwood, and I want the (Demons) to do well. But I know Todd Casebier really well, so I hope Rifle pulls it off.”

We know: them’s fightin’ words. It’s just the kind of quintessential dialogue emblematic of a father-son rivalry.

“I think for a while there was,” Leyba said of the dynamic between him and his father. “He kind of wanted me to go to Glenwood, to be honest with you — but I wanted to stay in Rifle. Going through high school, I think a little bit of him inside rooted for Glenwood, but you can’t root against your own son… We always won that rivalry, so that was a plus side to me.”

The tides, however, have changed.

GLENWOOD GETTING TOUGHER

Glenwood Springs comes equipped with a freshman quarterback in Joaquin Sandoval. Despite his youth, he’s well on his way to becoming an elite quarterback in the 3A Western Slope League. He’s already completed 34 of 48 attempts for 422 yards and 10 touchdowns — two of those rushing touchdowns.

“They certainly trust him to make plays,” Casebier said of Sandoval. “You see that they’re letting him do his thing regardless of his age. Their rush sets up their pass just like it does with us. They’ll throw it anytime with their quarterback and he’s a good, young player.”

Then, you’ve got Blake and Wheatley Nieslanik. Blake, a junior, has already amassed 901 yards rushing, with nine touchdowns. He also has 120 yards receiving with an additional four touchdowns.

Wheatley, a senior, leads the Demons in receiving yards, having already collected 171 yards and 3 touchdowns.

RIFLE’S SECRET SAUCE

But there are some aspects you can’t factor out when it comes to Rifle football: namely, rushing and defense. Over the course of the 2021 spring season, the Bears have accumulated nearly 2,000 team rushing yards, with an adjoining 24 touchdowns.

Senior Kaden Wolf has nearly 600 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Not to be outdone, junior teammate Toto Fletchall has 592 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing. Mix in senior Embrey Maratino’s 333 yards and 3 touchdowns, and what do you get? A triple threat from the depths of high school football hell.

Rifle junior Toto Fletchall breaks a tackle during May 1’s game against The Academy.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

“With us, it starts with running the ball,” Casebier said. “If we can do that, that will give us a chance. The last game when we played them, we controlled the ball really well and kept them off the field because they’re so good on offense. We know our run game is where we live, and, hopefully, we can move the chains again like we did, and, of course, we gotta be able to throw it to stay balanced, and I’ve been happy with (Trey Caldwell’s) progress.”

Trey’s brother, junior Broc Caldwell, also gets to suit up against Glenwood Springs on Saturday.

“We are so happy that both our sons get to play this year,” Melody Caldwell, their mother, said. “Broc has been playing golf during football so it’s nice to see them playing together again. Trey has worked hard since third grade to get here and now he gets to start at quarterback.”

PROUD PARENTS

Trey didn’t start the season at quarterback but has played it in the past and has started the last four games. His mother thinks he’s doing a great job regardless, she said.

“Trey is devoted to the team and loves his teammates and seeing them succeed. He is of course a bit nervous but is dedicated to practice and learning all the plays,” she said. “We are proud of how he has stepped up to become a leader. We also love it when the play is a pass from Trey to Broc.”

Melody said it’s going to be a great game Saturday and Rifle will come out on top.

“The Rifle-Glenwood rivalry has been long-lasting. It is a respectful rivalry,” she said. “As a graduate of Rifle I know how emotional those games get. Lots of these boys have grown up playing against the Glenwood boys in several sports. Even though it’s a rivalry it’s also nice to see them as friends when the game is over.”

PREPARING FOR THE CHALLENGE AHEAD

Fletchall doesn’t really have the pre-game jitters, he said.

“I mean, last time we played (the Demons) we only lost by a touchdown,” he said. “It was a tough game but I think we’re good. We had a good week of practice, and I think we’re ready.”

Fletchall, however, is well aware of what’s ahead.

“Well, we know one of their kids, No. 15 Blake Nieslanik; he’s probably their best running back,” Fletchall said. “His cousin, I’m pretty sure, No. 88, had a good couple of passes they threw to him just right in the middle. And, yeah, we just need to stop those two guys and I think we’re good.”

Fletchall said he’s taking care of his body, icing and mentally preparing for Saturday’s game.

“I know it’s going to be a tough, tough fight,” he said. “I know they’re really good. They hit hard.”

On defense, the Bears account for 13 total sacks, with the likes of senior Bryce Rowley, who also picked up three sacks against The Academy last week.

“It’s typical playoffs. You’ve got two teams that are playing pretty good and both defenses are playing tough, which, again, is why we’re here,” Casebier said. “Offensively, we’ve got to take care of the ball better than we did last week. Other than that, I was really happy with how we played. We did some really good things. We just got to take care of the ball.”

“I think there will be more points this time than the last time we played Glenwood,” he added.

‘ENJOY IT’

Leyba said he’ll likely listen to the game on the radio. Before then, he has one last message:

“I think part of it is, you gotta tell them to keep their composure, but the other part of it is to enjoy it,” he said. “A lot of the time going into the playoffs you’re playing random teams and you’re playing people that you never heard of before. Now you get a chance to play your rival, you got a chance to knock them out, so you got a chance to do something special.”

Leyba looks forward to Saturday.

“I’m excited for both those guys,” he said. “They worked hard and they fought through a tough Covid year, so it’s good for both those guys to be here.”

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com


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