When the odds don’t matter: Rifle Bears ready to square off against The Classical Academy in battle for state title
Had it not been for his stout defense, chances are Rifle head coach Todd Casebier would be in football purgatory.
“We’d be turning our gear in,” Casebier said. “That’s easy.”
By now, anyone who pays attention to high school football in Garfield County knows the story. The underdog, No. 4-ranked Bears proved any naysayers wrong by edging then-undefeated, No. 1-ranked Glenwood Springs by putting forth a dramatic, story-book finish on May 8 in Demons territory.
Two touchdowns scored from each team in regulation led to overtime. In that overtime — with rules dictating the ball automatically be taken by an offense at the 10-yard line with first and goal — Rifle kept the Demons to a field goal.
Amid a cacophony of jeers and cheers coming from both ends of the field, the Bears’ offense eventually found themselves facing fourth down on the Demons’ 1-yard line. Casebier gave junior running back Toto Fletchall the nod.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Fletchall accomplished three things simultaneously: He won the game at 20-17, ended the Demons’ phenomenal season at a 7-1 overall, 6-0 conference record and helped punch the now 6-2 overall, 4-2 conference record Bears’ ticket to the Colorado Class 3A championship game against The Classical Academy.
That game is slated for 2 p.m. May 15 in Pueblo.
But it’s not just the defense that deserves credit for Rifle’s Cinderella-esque run at the top spot. A quick glance over the past year shows a team stacked with can-do players
In addition to battling COVID-19, the Bears had to start their delayed season with a completely new head coach and a completely new coaching staff. To add fuel to the fire, that staff was responsible for filling the shoes of about 20 seniors who graduated the previous year.
While the 2020-2021 season kept getting pushed back due to pandemic concerns, former Rifle head coach Damon Wells abruptly left, and eventually took up a head coaching job in Jefferson City, Missouri.
This left Rifle at a weird crossroads. In his tenure with the Bears, Wells amassed 118 wins to 35 losses and led their football program to three state title games, in 2005, 2012 and 2014.
With COVID-19 already upending the season, it couldn’t have been the worse timing for the program to run into staffing issues.
Senior defensive end Bryce Rowley, also a varsity wrestler, spoke of how his team still put their best cleat forward in this regard.
“This summer, we all came in and went hard in the weight room and went hard in practice,” Rowley said. “Although it’s a whole new coaching staff and everything, and we were kind of iffy coming into this season, I feel like, with all the hard work our team has been putting in and just everything we’ve been doing so far, it’s been working out.”
With a bit of luck, Rifle managed to hire coach Casebier later in January. This gave the program just weeks to get ready for gridiron action.
Casebier — who picked up a 3A state title head coaching Palisade in 2003, a runner-up coaching Palisade in 2002 and a 4A runner-up head coaching Montrose in 2014 — brought knowledge to the table.
“Without a doubt, there have been more challenges at Rifle than there’s been anywhere else I’ve coached,” Casebier said. “I was hired in January, starting working on football in February and started playing games in March. I mean, that doesn’t happen; it just doesn’t. And for us being where we’re at, give credit to the kids and the coaches. It’s been a team effort from all of us.”
More than that, his young team — returning just one starter from 2019 in senior Josh Straw — simply persevered. They’d start the season from being this typically heavily favored program to more of a sleeper presence.
After starting the season with two victories, the Bears suffered an almost out-of-nowhere 38-7 loss to Basalt. Later in the season, an undefeated Glenwood Springs team hosted the Bears and bested them 22-15 — the first time Glenwood had beat Rifle since 2010.
Then, in the end-of-season pressure cooker, the Bears answered back. In the playoffs, Rifle held on to win a hard-fought 28-20 battle over The Academy on May 1. From there, a chance at redemption ended in a thrilling 20-17 victory over the Demons at Stubler Memorial Field.
“That’s why we’re playing Saturday,” Casebier said. “Because we were able to ignore the noise from the coaches change, noise from we’re not going to be very good or the thumping we all took at Basalt.”
Rifle is used to being in the spotlight, and this year was not the same, Casebier acknowledged.
“There’s a great lesson there for all of us — that it’s about who’s got the trophy in the end,” he said. “It’s not about who’s ranked No. 1. It’s about who’s got the trophy on Saturday at 4:30 (p.m.). That’s the champion.”
WHAT TO EXPECT
No. 2-ranked The Classical Academy is undefeated, and the Titans’ defense has only given up 20 total points all season.
Meanwhile, this Colorado Springs powerhouse comes heavily equipped with offensive weapons — namely, running back Cade Palmer. The 6-foot, 2-inch, 195-pound junior has already accumulated 776 yards and 15 touchdowns.
During the May 8 39-13 semifinal win over No. 6-ranked Sand Creek, Palmer collected 120 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. It comes as no surprise that scouts from notable Division I programs — including Michigan State University — are vying to get Palmer to ink the pen.
“I know that, with their offense, they’re really good; they’ve got a strong runner,” Rowley said. “The passing game’s pretty good seeing some of the film we have watched. I feel like we just have to make adjustments, do what we normally do, come out aggressive and make sure we hit them hard.”
“Defensively, last game we really improved throughout,” Rowley added. “Hopefully, we come out 100% (at the) beginning of this next game.”
If their run game falls flat, the Titans also come equipped with a decent arm. In six games, junior quarterback Sam Guilez has connected on 32 of 54 attempts for 530 yards and 8 touchdowns.
Bears senior Jesse Rivera said Rifle needs to prepare mentally for offensive attacks on all fronts.
“Personally, I think it’s just shutting out their run,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re mostly a run-first team with their running back. We need to allow nothing outside because I know we have great help on the inside with our linebackers. And when they pass, we’re just going to have to be ready for it and know it’s to come.”
On defense, the Titans boast 406 total tackles and 20.5 total quarterback sacks.
At the other end, however, Rifle has its fair share of bragging rights. Although the latest stats don’t include their last game against the Demons, so far the stout Rifle defense is responsible for 355 total tackles and a complementing 13 sacks. Rowley, of course, leads the team in sacks, with eight.
On offense, Fletchall is Rifle’s go-to running back. The junior holds under his belt 592 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. The injured Kaden Wolf had 596 yards and six scores leading up until now.
“It’s not like we haven’t been here,” Casebier said. “The big thing is, we’re going to Pueblo to do it, and it’s for the state championship and we’re excited about that.”
Rowley and Rivera are in their final days of high school. Having to overcome some tough adversity throughout the 2020-21 season and still being able to compete at the state championship level has given them so much to look forward to as the days close in on their high school careers.
Starting cornerback Rivera said he’s come a long way.
“Freshman year I was benched,” he said. “We had a 12-man team and I was the only man on the sideline. Ever since it was just kind of motivation to get up and get better just so I could get toward that starting spot, and it looks like it’s paid off quite a bit.”
Rowley is excited for Saturday’s game — which should make the perfect sendoff to his senior year.
“We all went into the season kind of iffy, like everyone was saying since last year we’ve lost all our seniors and how coming up, we weren’t going to do as good this year,” he said. “We kind of proved everyone wrong almost with how our team’s doing this season.”
Rivera also looked back on the wild ride.
“I think it’s been pretty crazy with COVID. I wasn’t even sure I was going to have a year,” he said. “A lot of seniors were graduating early, and that’s what I was hoping to do, but then football happened and I still wasn’t sure about it. But I ended up talking to a player that said a ton about the coaches and about playing for the team. It’s a great team, I’ve enjoyed playing for it.”
“It’s not even like friends anymore,” he added. “We’re all a family. It’s a tight bond that we have here.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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