Quick exit but successful season for Rifle Bears on the gridiron | PostIndependent.com

Quick exit but successful season for Rifle Bears on the gridiron

Jon Mitchell
Citizen Telegram Sports Editor
Rifle assistant coach Bob Blanchard consoles senior running back Kellin Leigh after the Bears lost to Coronado, 34-31, in the first round of the Class 3A state playoffs this past Saturday at Gerry Berry Stadium in Colorado Springs.
Darcy Copeland |

A Rifle High School football season full of positives and upswings ended with a downside this past Saturday.

The Bears went to the postseason for the third consecutive year, thanks to a second-place finish in the Class 3A Western Slope League. Their run in the Class 3A state playoffs ended earlier than the Bears had hoped, however, when 11th-seeded Rifle lost 34-31 to sixth-seeded Coronado at Garry Berry Stadium in Colorado Springs.

Rifle finished its season 8-3.

The Cougars, who earned the school’s first victory in the postseason since 1991, limited the Bears to a season-low 149 rushing yards. Despite that, Rifle bolted to an early 17-0 lead. Layton Stutsman’s 39-yard touchdown pass to Kellin Leigh came just 40 seconds after Stutsman put the Bears on the scoreboard with a 1-yard TD run with 6:53 remaining in the first quarter. Eduardo Sandoval’s 34-yard field goal early in the second quarter made it a three-possession game.

Coronado, however, scored five of the game’s next six touchdowns, including a 40-yard interception return for a score with 25 seconds remaining to put the Cougars up 31-24 and essentially seal it.

Regardless, the season-ending loss was one of the few low points in what proved to be another stellar season for the Bears.

Like Coronado, Rifle spent time at the top of the CHSAAnow.com media poll and was ranked in the top 10 for the entire regular season.

The Bears’ running game, even though it was limited in their final game of the season, proved effective again. Rifle averaged 9.31 yards per carry as a team during its 11-game season, an average that, through Monday, ranked No. 1 in Class 3A and No. 2 behind Class 5A Prairie View of Henderson (9.38 yards per carry). The only schools in Colorado that had more rushing yards than Rifle (3,807) through this past weekend’s games were Class 2A Faith Christian (3,973) and Class 4A Montrose (3,917).

And Rifle was able to do it with multiple running backs as its wing-t offense is designed to do. Leigh, who was held in check by Coronado on limited rushing attempts, finished with 1,162 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on 102 carries. The Bears nearly had three players reach the 1,000-yard plateau, with Javier Nunez (984) and Brock Clark (891) coming close.

Defensively, the Bears remained solid. Rifle recorded three shutouts and limited six of its opponents to single-digit scoring. Austin Shepard finished with a team-high 99 tackles, and senior Zach Bare recorded a sack against Coronado to finish the season with a team-high 10.5 sacks. Rifle also forced 23 turnovers — recovering 17 fumbles — with senior Bailey Hoffmeister recording a team-high three interceptions.

In all, Rifle outscored its opponents 456-139 over the course of the season.

The WSL will likely have a different makeup next year. Palisade’s enrollment would move them from 5A to 4A, but the school has petitioned to remain at 5A, and the Colorado High School Activities Association on Tuesday approved Grand Junction Central’s petition to move down from 4A, since its football program is struggling. Also moving out of the league will be Montezuma-Cortez, which had its request to play down to Class 2A approved on Tuesday.

That will leave plenty of competition, though, with Glenwood Springs, Delta, Steamboat Springs, Eagle Valley and Battle Mountain still in the league. Glenwood Springs and Delta play each other in the Class 3A quarterfinals in Glenwood Springs on Saturday, and Palisade hosts a quarterfinal game against The Classical Academy out of Colorado Springs on Saturday.

And next year, Rifle hopes to be right back with that group, still competing for a state championship.

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