Fresh faces poised to lead Rifle back to playoffs for sixth straight year
The 2015 season ended in heartbreaking fashion for the Rifle Bears football team, which dropped its opening-round state playoff game to Discovery Canyon, ending any chance at returning to the 3A state championship game. But what really made the loss that much more painful was the number of key contributors that would leave the program due to graduation, headlined by All-State running back/safety Ty Leyba, 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Bosshardt and standout center Joe Kosht.
Now, heading into the 2016 season, the Bears will have to replace six starters on offense, including a new center, quarterback and two new running backs, but with the philosophy of each team having a lifespan of one year under head coach Damon Wells, the Bears are poised to make the most of this season’s lifespan with a return to the top of the 3A Western Slope League standings and another berth in the state playoffs.
“You know, it’s funny because at this time last year people were asking us the same questions of how we’d replace key graduating seniors,” Wells said. “We did well last year, but who knows what’s going to happen because we play a brutal schedule. It’s so hard to schedule games on the Western Slope, and then we lost some teams out of our division, so it’s going to be a tough season for us with the schedule.”
Last season Rifle had just three nonleague games, but in 2016 that number will jump to four as Delta and Steamboat Springs left the 3A WSL, dropping the number of teams in the league from eight to six.
But that doesn’t mean the Bears will make excuses. They never do; they’ll just head out each and every Friday night to take on whomever is across from them.
Led by senior running back/linebacker Blaine Vance and standout junior guards Ramon Salvidrez and Connor Gould, the Bears have a solid foundation in place once again.
Last season, Vance led the Bears in rushing with 1,341 yards and 13 touchdowns. With the departures of Bosshardt (Colorado Mesa University) and Leyba (Western State Colorado University), Vance will once again be relied upon heavily in the Rifle running game, which averaged 352.5 yards per game in 2015 while scoring just under 40 points per game.
Joining Vance in the backfield will be junior quarterback Luke Ellis, who will take over under center for Ethan Strouse. Along with Ellis, junior Camron Shepherd and senior Drake Montgomery will be relied upon heavily out of the backfield.
That being said, though, the Bears won’t be afraid to spread the carries evenly, even if there is a slight lack of experience in the backfield compared to last season.
“We don’t really scheme accordingly for anyone,” Wells said. “Part of what’s unique with us — and I don’t know if it’s unique compared to others because I only know the way we do it here — but Drake [Montgomery] played a ton for us last year offensively. Yes, he wasn’t a starter, but we have all the faith in the world in his abilities out of the backfield. Same goes for Camron [Shepherd], so there are a lot of kids that maybe people don’t know their names, but they’re still Rifle football players.”
Rifle’s prolific running game out of the wing T all starts with outstanding guard play, which Salvidrez and Gould will provide for the second straight year. Having those two on the interior will allow the Bears to bring along a young offensive line, but much like the program has in the past, don’t expect a drop in play as the Bears are so sound with development that Wells and his staff can plug-and-play right away.
“I feel like we’ve been doing some really good things with the new offensive line,” Gould said. “The expectations have been set from the seniors last year, but with Ramon and I, it’s up to us as leaders along the offensive line to help carry on those expectations up front.”
Defensively, the Bears will feature a new secondary and a mostly rebuilt defensive line for a defense that allowed just over 12 points per game, including three straight shutouts early in the season.
Senior defensive tackle Alex Cordova will be featured along the defensive line full time this year after making the move from cornerback to the trenches midway through the year, while the combination of Vance and Salvidrez will clean up the running game at middle linebacker.
There will be plenty of new faces and new names on the field this season for the Bears, but expectations on and off the field won’t change. Rifle will play to its strengths and hope to win some football games.
“These guys are going to go out there and give it their all every game,” Cordova said. “They’re not going to let anyone down. I expect us to do some great things this year because I’ve seen the time and effort we’ve put in leading up to this year.”