Rifle shakes off restriction, starts football playoff quest
RIFLE — Seven days.
That’s all the Rifle Bears football team cares about right now heading into the first round of the state football playoffs as the No. 9 seed. The Bears travel Friday to Colorado Springs to take on the No. 8 seed, Discovery Canyon Thunder.
It’s not about a path of redemption to win the state title a year after falling to Pueblo East 30-14 in the 2014 3A championship game, nor is it about proving people wrong following an off-season broiled in controversy.
Rifle’s football program was placed on restriction and banned from the postseason in early December 2014, stemming from an incident with Align Multimedia, based in Rifle, having a videographer wearing a headset inside of the opponent’s coaching box during Rifle’s semifinal last Nov. 22 against Fort Morgan at Bears Stadium.
Fortunately for the Bears, the Colorado High School Activities Association lifted restrictions before the start of the 2015 regular season, making the Bears eligible for postseason play.
But as Bears players put it, they’re not out to prove their innocence or have an “us against the world” mentality. It’s all about working hard to make sure they get another seven days with each other.
“To get back to the state championship really isn’t the focus for us,” Bears senior captain Gage Johnston said following a recent practice. “The goal is just to get seven more days with the group of guys. Playing with these guys, there’s nothing better.
“But honestly, the state championship I could care less about. I just want more playing time with these guys.”
The way the Bears have played over the last five weeks, since their 35-21 loss to the Delta Panthers on Oct. 2, they stand a good chance of sticking around in the playoffs.
Rifle has won five straight games while outscoring their opponents 216-45, including two straight 55-6 wins to finish the year.
The focus and determination is very apparent watching the Bears practice.
Head Coach Damon Wells, who had to sit out the first game of the year because of CHSAA’s restriction, points to the last three years making deep runs in the playoffs as a big reason why the Bears are playing so well to this point.
“The power that a lot of people don’t recognize in making the playoffs and playing so many extra games is that you get that many more weeks to practice. In the last three seasons, these seniors have had an entire extra year of football to practice that not many kids around the state of Colorado have had.
“That’s 10 games, 10 weeks of practice, so that’s the year’s worth of practice and repetition.”
For the players, the extra weeks of practice have paid off in the last few years, allowing the Bears to win four consecutive Class 3A Western Slope League championships before this year’s second-place finish behind Delta.
Rifle High has also won three state championships in its history, the last of which came in 2004 when the Bears rolled to the state championship as the No. 16 seed in a 16-team bracket.
In the last six years, the Bears are 59-12 overall largely due to the system put in place under Wells, along with the work ethic and determination of each member of the Bears team throughout those years.
Last season might have been one of Rifle’s best teams under Wells, outside of the 2004 state champions, as the Bears went 9-1 in the regular season before rolling to the state championship game by outscoring their playoff opponents 111-20 in the first three rounds.
This year, the Bears posted an identical 9-1 regular season record with a large number of returning players, but as Wells puts it bluntly, it’s unfair to compare one team to another.
“I would only compare this years’ team to this year,” Wells said. “We say often that every team has a one-year lifespan, and we’re particularly pleased with this group and that they’ve done what we asked them to do while getting a little bit better every single day, every single week.”
‘LEAVING OUR LEGACY’
While Wells and the rest of the coaches are pleased with the progress of the 2015 Bears, there’s more to it for the members of the senior class that has done wonders for the program over the last three years.
“It’s about being together as a team and leaving our legacy as a team,” senior quarterback Ethan Strouse said after a rain-drenched practice last week. “Whatever we can do together is what we want to do, so that’s where our focus is right now.
“But we’re acutely aware of leaving a great legacy as a team, and we know what’s at stake.”
Despite being so successful for the last three years as a team, there’s a sense of an underdog mentality with this version of the Bears.
That might be hard to fathom when it comes to a team that is 18-2 in the regular season the last two years and is coming off of an appearance in the state championship game just one year ago, but there’s a major chip on the shoulder of the Bears as a whole.
“We want to prove ourselves every day,” Strouse said. “We always feel like the underdog. What we’ve accomplished might suggest that we aren’t the underdog, but if you look at the people out here [on the field], we’re the underdog most of the time.”
Maybe that chip on their shoulder comes from the coaching staff and the mentality they set each and every week, or maybe it was developed after the restriction was levied after last season.
To hear Wells talk about the “chip on the shoulder” mentality, it has nothing to do with the restriction or going out and proving people wrong.
“Our kids just aren’t wired that way,” Wells said. “We don’t run the program that way, either. We tend to focus all of our attention and energy on us. Personally, I believe that high school football is one of the finest things around, but as soon as you start talking more about adults than kids then it doesn’t become such a good thing any longer.”
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