Small in stature, big in heart |

Small in stature, big in heart

Dale Shrull
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post Independent

RIFLE, Colorado – Undersized and underdogs, a dream season has ended for the Rifle Bears.

Overachievers? Maybe. A great season? Definitely.

A Western Slope League title, an 11-1 record, and a trip to the final eight of the Class 3A state playoffs made up the 2011 season accomplishments for the Bears.

As the team somberly trudged off the field after the 36-15 loss to the Windsor Wizards Saturday, a few difficult smiles finally appeared.

A great season with a disappointing ending.

A team that every week had to overcome larger opponents and used speed, quickness and determination to notch win after win, the players left Bears Stadium knowing a special season had just come to an end.

“It’s been awesome,” senior linebacker Alex Copeland said about the season. “Everybody has been saying from the start that we’re too small, everybody is bigger than us, but we showed them. It’s heart that’s all that matters.”

As the Bears lingered on the field, the seniors soaking in the last few minutes of their high school careers, the underclassmen, absorbing memories they hope to repeat in the future, the players talked about “team” and “Rifle football.”

“All the good things we did this season can’t be lost on just one game – we brought Rifle football back,” said senior running back Brandon Kittle.

For years, Rifle built a reputation for a tough brand of winning football. For several years, Rifle has struggled. This season, Rifle returned to a winning form with a vengeance.

“We brought the tough back to Rifle football, and we got back into the playoffs,” junior linebacker Cody Beauford said.

Like they have all season, adversity was part of Rifle’s second round playoff game, and the Windsor Wizards took advantage.

After ripping off a 65-yard run, then a short TD dive, junior Ryan Moeller was stuck on the sidelines nursing a tender hamstring.

The rhino-sized Windsor offensive line tried to overwhelm the small, gazelle-like Bears.

Eventually that’s just what happened. Windsor scored 24 points in the fourth to pull away.

Taylor Webb ended his high school career scoring on a two-point conversion following Moeller’s score, to give the Bears an 8-6 lead; then scored on a 4-yard TD pass from Adam Rice in the final seconds of the game. But the agony of the first and last loss of the season was difficult to accept. As was the fact that he will never again pull on his No. 4 Rifle jersey.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be like after playing on the varsity all four years,” he said. “To get to experience this was great. Playoff football, playing on Saturday, it’s snowing, playing a bigger team – what else would you want?”

Spoken like the ultimate underdog.

The gigantic Windsor offensive and defensive lines were a major factor in the game,but it’s something the Bears have dealt with all season.

“I think a lot of teams came out and looked at us as being undersized and didn’t realize how strong we are,” Beauford said.

For more than three quarters, Rifle hung with the massive Wizards, trailing by just four points.

The effort and resolve never wavered for the Bears, but Windsor methodically put the game away with 24 points in the fourth.

For the seniors, there’s tremendous pride that goes with a memorable season.

“Every team I’ve been on before, it was just a bunch of individuals trying to do our best, but this was a team,” Copeland said. “This team, we played together, we were united for each other.”

Wells agreed.

“For this group of seniors, there were only five kids in the program when they started,” he said. “And now standing here today they were 14 days away from playing for the state championship.”

Adversity was Rifle’s constant companion in 2011.

The loss of a teammate Austin Booth, who passed away in January, tormented and motivated the team.

Then, last Wednesday night, junior Jake Whaley’s mother passed away in her sleep.

Jake played, played well, and then his emotions spilled over following the game.

Players hugged Whaley and wished him well.

“What he did today was a tremendous example of courage and love,” Wells said about Whaley, the team’s starting center. “To do something like that as a junior in high school, I can’t relate to that.

“I love this team, I love these boys. They’ve dealt with so much this year,” Wells added.

Copeland and the rest of the Bears won’t soon forget their 2011 season.

“This is the best team I’ve ever played on. I’m proud of our team, I’m proud of our coaches,” he said.

“It’s really special to be with people you love,” Webb said. “Every kid on this team is close, we all love each other and that’s the best thing.”

Through 11 wins and a league title, the Bears proved that the size of the heart can make a huge difference.

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