Classification drop in the offing for Rifle |

Classification drop in the offing for Rifle

Jeff Caspersen
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

RIFLE, Colorado – Enrollment numbers are all tallied up and the wheels are in motion. Most all of Rifle High School’s athletic programs are dropping a classification next school year.

In 2010-11, the Bears, currently a 4A school, will compete in Class 3A in all sports except girls golf, which has only two classifications (4A and 5A). Rifle will remain at the 3A level in football, which uses different enrollment thresholds than other sports.

The change will be in effect for a two-school year cycle. The Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) will re-evaluate enrollment counts prior to the next cycle.

It’s a shift that could very well breathe new life into athletics at Rifle, where the Bears have endured struggles in many a sport in recent years. A dwindling enrollment – spurred by the opening of nearby Coal Ridge High School in 2005 – has made it tough for the Bears to compete against larger schools.

“I think it’ll help us out,” said Rifle Athletic Director Troy Phillips, who’s also the school’s head baseball coach and assistant softball coach. “We have been, for a few years, one of the smallest schools in the 4A league. That does make it more difficult to compete.”

Rifle’s enrollment figure totaled 615, Phillips said. That left the school 16 students shy of qualifying for 4A status under CHSAA’s parameters for the 2010-2012 classification cycle. CHSAA’s 631-student threshold for 4A status is up from the last cycle, in which an enrollment of 586 or higher meant a 4A slotting. The 3A cutoff for football is 601 students.

CHSAA’s classification and league organizing committee met Monday and Tuesday to review all things related to reclassification.

A beneficial move?

A student population in the 600s is a big change for Rifle, which at one time was one of the Western Slope League’s larger schools. But that was before Coal Ridge opened.

“We’ve dropped from close to 900 to where we are now from when I started here eight years ago,” Rifle boys basketball coach Chris Lowther said.

Lowther’s Bears will now play in a rather large 3A Western Slope League, which will likely expand to 10 teams with Rifle’s arrival. The league will feature four Garfield County schools – Coal Ridge, Grand Valley, Roaring Fork and, of course, Rifle.

“It’s kind of weird going from being the small school to now being the biggest in the other division,” Phillips said.

With programs struggling to keep pace at the 4A level, the drop might prove beneficial.

Last school year, the Bears qualified for the playoffs in just two team sports – softball and girls basketball. Through fall of this school year, Rifle has yet to see a team make the postseason.

“Obviously, if you just look at the numbers of championships and win-loss records, that has kind of suffered over the last three or four years as Coal Ridge has gotten a full complement of freshmen through seniors,” Phillips said.

Playing schools smaller in size will no doubt help improve those win-loss records.

Rifle boys soccer coach Ryan Mahler, whose team didn’t win a game this fall, thinks the class drop will help his program put up a better fight.

“It might be beneficial,” he said. “If anything, I think soccer might be more competitive, to be honest with you. … It seems like everyone’s been struggling.”

“Hopefully, it’ll be something good for our school, that’ll help us have a lot of participation in sports,” Lowther said. “It’ll help us compete at the level we want to compete at.”

The impact on regional rivalries

Rifle’s drop to 3A will change the dynamic of at least one local rivalry – Rifle vs. Glenwood Springs. While the football rivalry between the schools will remain unchanged, Rifle and Glenwood have long squared off as 4A Western Slope League mates in other sports.

Now, if they do meet, it’ll be as non-league foes.

“The rivalry’s been so good for so long,” Glenwood Springs Athletic Director Craig Denney said. “You take that league aspect out of it and, I don’t want to say that it’ll be diminished, but it’s no longer part of that league battle. I do think the rivalry will still be there.”

While the Rifle-Glenwood rivalry will lose a touch of its luster, the door will open to new rivalries. The Bears will now play Garfield School District Re-2 mate Coal Ridge twice a year. And Grand Valley’s only a few miles down the road in Parachute.

“The closer you get the schools together, obviously the better the chances of rivalries existing,” Phillips said. “We haven’t played Grand Valley a whole lot in the past. We just started to play Coal Ridge in some sports.”

A future return to 4A?

Rifle’s drop to Class 3A might not last long. It’s hard to know what the future holds.

“It’ll be interesting to see how things go the next two years, if we’ll get over that and be back in 4A,” Phillips said. “I don’t know.”

The direction of the economy and the growth of the housing market over in western Garfield County will have a lot to do with that.

Until this upcoming classification cycle’s complete, Rifle will play the card it’s been dealt.

“I think it’ll probably help across the board for us,” Phillips said. “Several coaches are pretty excited about the chances of playing at the 3A level and what it might do.”

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