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Mitchell: Rifle boys could be a factor in season’s stretch run

Jon Mitchell
Citizen Telegram Sports Editor
Jon Mitchell
STAFF-MitchellJon-GPI

As a basketball fan, it’s about now when I, like a lot of people, start singing a song that’s typically reserved for Christmas time.

You know that one. It has that nostalgic chorus that says “It’s the most wonderful time … of the yeeeeaaaaarrrrr …”

Yeah, that one.

Because for a lot of college basketball fans, and especially high school basketball fans, that’s what this is.

This is the time of year that mighty teams can assert themselves as just that. It’s also the time of year that a lot of proverbial ”David and Goliath” matchups come around when that proverbial “David” has a full arsenal of rocks he can use to knock off those giant, mighty teams out there.

And there truly are a lot of mighty teams out there, especially in Class 4A. Longmont, Holy Family and Golden are the cream of the crop this year. The 4A Western Slope League even has a couple of teams in Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs that, in my mind, have shown they’re capable of hanging with some of the best in the state even though they’re not ranked in Class 4A’s Top 10 in either the CHSAAnow.com poll or the Associated Press poll.

But a team that might have a chance to take on that role of David, even if it’s for just a game or two, is the Rifle Bears.

Yep. You read correctly.

This isn’t me just throwing a rah-rah chant out there. I’m being objective about this based on history.

And history doesn’t lie when it comes to Roger Walters’ basketball teams.

Walters, who is in his second stint coaching the Bears (his first began back in 1996) not only has a history of helping his teams get better as the season goes on, but has a penchant for helping his teams overcome adversity. One example is two years ago, when Rifle finished the regular season 13-10 with a state-playoff berth, the Bears reeled off nine consecutive victories after losing eight of their first 10 games. Also keep in mind that the Bears (11-8 overall, 8-5 league) had a stretch this season where they lost five of six games following a 3-0 start, but they’ve recovered to put themselves in a position to finish third in the league standings behind the Demons and Sailors headed into Friday’s regular-season finale at home against Battle Mountain.

Plus, keep in mind that he coached Roaring Fork to a 54-game conference win streak at the 3A level, and that stint included a pair of state title games. On top of that, his recruiting as coach of Colorado Mesa University’s women’s basketball team — he left the team to come back to Rifle following the 2011-12 season — set the foundation for the program to become the RMAC title and Division II contender that it is today.

Walters will be the first one to tell you, though, that this year’s Rifle kids are the most important thing to this year’s team.

Austin Boone is one example. The 6-foot-4 senior post player for the Bears still hasn’t missed a shot in two games against Eagle Valley, going 8 for 8 from the field during the Bears’ 47-43 win against the Devils on Tuesday to go with his 7-for-7 outing against them in January. Rifle’s Cody Rice is another X-factor, as the 6-3 senior can post up inside and run the floor well when the Bears get out on the fast break.

Then there’s Avery Lujan, Rifle’s best outside shooter who Walters once said has a chance to be one of the top shooters in the league. But the Bears’ big X-factor is their defense: They’re allowing only 44.1 points per game this season. Of the Bears’ 11 wins this season, seven of them have come when Rifle has allowed its opponents less than 40 points.

Is it possible? Sure. Anything can happen during the postseason, and there’s an awful lot of things other than Xs and Os that can factor into the outcome of a game. But given recent events and recent history, it’s not too much of a stretch to think Rifle’s boys could snag one of the Western Slope District Tournament’s four state playoff spots.

It sure will be fun to see how it unfolds. After all, that’s what makes this a wonderful time of the year.

Jon Mitchell is the sports editor of The Citizen Telegram and Glenwood Springs Post Independent. He can be reached at 970-384-9123.


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