Bears prep for stretch run |

Bears prep for stretch run

Jon Mitchell
Citizen Telegram Sports Editor
Rifle High School senior Whitney Vance (33) puts up a running jumper during the fourth quarter of the Bears' 47-22 victory against Steamboat Springs on Tuesday. Rifle improved to 9-3 overall and 5-3 in the Class 4A Western Slope League with the win.
Jon Mitchell / Citizen Telegram |

RIFLE — There’s been a learning process for both basketball teams at Rifle High School during this 2014-15 season.

Rifle’s girls basketball team, with a roster made up of younger players, has also had to deal with the adversity of losing some of its more experienced players due to injury. Rifle’s boys basketball team came into the season with no returning starters off last year’s Class 4A Western Slope League championship squad, and the roster has been making steady progress in finding chemistry on the floor.

And progress ­— and effort — is being made by both teams despite some of the things they’ve been facing this season, which includes a tougher boys and girls league than in years past. And both coaches are well aware of that.

“We told the kids after the game that they had nothing to hang their heads about,” Rifle coach Roger Walters said following his team’s 51-34 loss Tuesday to Steamboat Springs, a squad that’s contending for a league title. “It’s about how much you give to the game. It’s not always about the outcome. I don’t think we could have played any harder tonight. We could have played a little smarter, but we definitely couldn’t have played any harder.”

That aggressive play showed early for Rifle against a Steamboat team that boasts a 6-foot-9 player in senior Garrett Bye, who has already committed to play Division I basketball at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The Bears were within a point halfway through the second quarter, using their motion offense to pull Bye out onto the perimeter to get open looks close to the basket.

But by the middle of the third quarter, Rifle’s open shots weren’t falling anymore. Meanwhile, while the Bears were on their way to a 12-for-42 shooting performance from the field, Steamboat was getting its own open looks and got 25 points from Robi Powers in improving to 10-4 overall (7-1 in league play).

Rifle fell to 7-7 and 4-4, though they’re in fourth place in the league standings through Tuesday’s games. They’ve gotten solid contributions from junior guard Avery Lujan — the Bears’ top shooting threat on the perimeter — and senior post players Austin Boone and Cody Rice, who have displayed quickness and tenacity underneath the basket.

Overall, though, Rifle’s focus headed into the final stretch of the season is on improvement, especially with the Bears facing a short turnaround before playing their next league game at Palisade today (Jan. 29).

“We’ll go into practice [Wednesday] and go over three things we were terrible at tonight and need to improve on,” Waters said after Tuesday’s loss.

Rifle’s girls have made some improvements, as well, though some of them have come on the fly.

The Bears got back on the winning track this past week with victories against Battle Mountain (53-25) this past Friday and Steamboat (47-22) on Tuesday. The Battle Mountain victory snapped a four-game losing streak for Rifle following a 7-1 start to the season.

Rifle has been without junior post player Emily Neuroth, who suffered an ankle injury during the Bears’ game against first-place Glenwood Springs in Denver back in December. She was scheduled to return against Battle Mountain, but she was held out of that game, and the Steamboat game, by coach Kristy Wallner when she tweaked the injury during warmups prior to Rifle’s game against the Huskies in Edwards.

Still, the Bears have a group of players — and young players — who have stepped up in the past two games and contributed greatly. Freshman point guard Elly Walters scored 20 points against the Huskies and 18 against the Sailors. Samantha Hinkle, a sophomore who transferred to Rifle and was eligible to play for the first time against the Huskies, scored 20 in her first varsity game. Jessie Pressler, another freshman, had 11 points on Tuesday.

All total, only four of the Bears’ 13 players on the roster are upperclassmen, and Whitney Vance is the team’s only senior. It definitely points to some promise in the future for the Bears.

“This gives us a chance to build our foundation not only this year, but going forward,” Wallner, the second-year Rifle girls coach, said.

Still, there is a lot of emphasis on the stretch run this season, especially since the Bears are still 5-3 in league play and 9-5 overall (fourth place in the 4A WSL standings) even after that four-game slide.

“For us, that tough stretch came from playing some of the top teams in 4A,” said Wallner, whose team has lost two of its five games to seventh-ranked Glenwood Springs and ninth-ranked Montrose. “For us, it was a good measuring tool. It showed that we’re nowhere near that, and we have to keep working and grinding to reach that level.”

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