Bears falter on big stage
The Rifle Bears are no strangers to playing on big stages during the fall.
Friday night against Delta at Bear Stadium was no different for head coach Damon Wells and his undefeated football team.
Unfortunately, the Bears stumbled out of the gates early against the Panthers, which cost them in the end as Rifle dropped its first game all season, 35-21.
“I think, first of all, you have to be pretty successful to play in big games,” Rifle head coach Damon Wells said. “So we’re blessed and we consider ourselves fortunate to play on a big stage so frequently. Obviously the end result wasn’t what we wanted, but it’s fun having an environment like this come to Rifle. We’re proud to be the bell cow.”
Maybe the big stage had the Bears a bit off their game, as right from the start the Bears defense had difficulty getting off the field on third and fourth down as the Panthers marched 71 yards in 12 plays to open the scoring. Delta running back Tristan Brown plowed into the end zone from one-yard out midway through the first quarter.
Looking to respond with a score themselves, the Bears offense threw an interception on a halfback option — just their second play from scrimmage — to give the ball back to the Panthers on their side of the ball.
From there, Panthers senior running back Jonny Ponce briefly stole the show.
On two carries during the Panthers second drive, Ponce rushed for 19- and 40 yards, the last rush going all the way to the house, putting Delta up 14-0 with just over four minutes to go in the first quarter.
At the end of the run, Ponce celebrated well before crossing the goal line in a move to mock the Bears’ defense, which resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that would be enforced on the kickoff.
Trying to get back into the game already down 14-0, the Bears responded with a 50-yard kickoff return by Carlos Ochoa that set Rifle up on the Panthers’ side of the field.
One play later senior running back Tyler Bosshardt raced 40 yards for what appeared to be a huge touchdown that swung momentum back to Rifle. However, a holding penalty on the Bears wiped out the touchdown. Four plays later the Bears turned it over on downs back to the Panthers, who wasted little time adding another score.
It was Ponce again, bursting up the middle for a 71-yard touchdown — his second of the game — to put the Panthers up 21-0 before the first quarter was even over. But in a major changing point in the game, Ponce was ejected for his second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, this time for flipping into the endzone at the end of the run.
With Delta’s best player gone for the game, the Bears went back on the attack.
Following the score, Rifle marched 61 yards in seven plays. Senior quarterback Ethan Strouse capped off the big drive with a five-yard keeper off the left side to put the Bears on the board just under a minute into the second quarter.
Trailing 21-7, the Rifle defense tightened up, forcing Delta to punt or turn the ball over on downs for the rest of the second half. While the defense held firm, the Bears offense couldn’t recapture the momentum from their scoring drive, going three-and-out twice to close the half.
Coming out looking to pull within seven points to start the second half, the Bears offense quickly picked up a first down as Strouse found Jacob Boone wide open in the heart of the Panthers zone defense, but three plays later on 3rd and five, Strouse was picked off by Brown, who returned it all the way to the Bears 10-yard line.
Three plays after the interception, Panthers quarterback Kole Roberts hit tight end Kory Mills on a quick pop pass for a 12-yard score, putting Delta up 28-7 just under four minutes into the third quarter.
That’s when Rifle turned to Bosshardt and fellow running back Blaine Vance to get back into the game.
Bosshardt carried the ball three times for 24 yards on the ensuing drive before Vance capped off the answering drive with a 46-yard burst up the middle to pull the Bears back within two scores.
Up 28-14, the Panthers went into clock management mode, eating up nearly six minutes of the third quarter on a 12-play, 57-yard drive. Roberts found daylight along the left sideline and raced home for the 8-yard TD to put Delta back up by three scores, 35-14.
But credit to Wells and his team, who never quit in this one.
After an interception and a forced turnover on downs, the Bears went back to Bosshardt on the ground to try and get them back within striking distance.
He answered in a big way once again.
With just under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter and time winding down, Bosshardt broke free for a 79-yard jaunt up the gut to pull Rifle back to within three scores.
On the night, Bosshardt finished with 135 yards and a score on just 12 carries, good for 11.25 yards-per-carry.
“He’s [Bosshardt] a great kid, and he’s worked his tail off,” Wells said post game while consoling some of his players following a tough loss.
Unfortunately, his performance alone wasn’t enough to pull out the win for the Bears, who now must regroup before hosting Grand Junction Central High School next Friday at Bears Stadium.
Despite the loss and the slow start to the game for his team, Wells was honest in his praise for the Delta Panthers.
“There were a lot great things that happened, but all the credit goes to Delta,” Wells said. “Their kids played well, I thought their first drive was very impressive.”
Sitting at 4-1 (1-1 WSL), the Bears have a tough schedule moving forward, but with plenty of experience and a group of leaders who know what it takes to reach their ultimate goal, they’ll surely learn from this loss.
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