Grizzlies to play Bears in 1st round |

Grizzlies to play Bears in 1st round

Jon Mitchell

RIFLE — A tough league schedule helped the Rifle High School football team earn a first-round home game in the Class 3A state playoffs. Now, the Bears are hoping all of that tough competition will make a difference on Saturday.

The Bears (9-1 overall) emerged from the regular season with their fourth consecutive title from the 3A Western Slope League, which got five teams into the 16-team playoff bracket. By virtue of their league title, sixth seeded Rifle earned the highest seed — and the only first-round home game — of any of the teams in the league.

And thanks to that, Rifle plays host to Northridge (6-4), the 11th seed in the tournament and one of four teams to make the bracket from the 3A Northern Conference. Kickoff is 1 p.m. Saturday at Bears Stadium, and it’s a good bet that both teams are thankful to have played such a tough regular-season schedule to this point.

“I really think that’s helped us a lot,” Rifle senior offensive lineman Alex Gould said of Rifle’s regular-season schedule. “With so many tough teams in our league, every weak is a battle and you never really get a break. That should make a difference for us because we’re used to everyone being good.”

That’s the case for Rifle and the WSL. The Bears have lost just five games in the past four seasons, and the combined records of the league’s five playoffs teams — Glenwood Springs, Delta, Palisade, Rifle and Eagle Valley — is 36-14.

“It’s nice to be at a place where it’s a big deal when you lose a game,” Rifle coach Damon Wells said following the Bears’ 18-10 loss to Palisade on Oct. 10.

Still, the four teams from the Northern Conference in the postseason — Northridge, Roosevelt, Holy Family and Berthoud — are even better with a combined record of 30-10. The big difference is that the 3A WSL relies primarily on a running game for its success. Many of the Northern conference teams rely on passing.

And Northridge passes the ball. A lot.

“They have some very dynamic skill players,” Wells said. “I’m very impressed with their quarterback, and they have a great wide receiver also.”

That quarterback is senior Brenden Fulton, who this year is 184-for-385 passing (56.6 percent) for 2,856 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He’s thrown for 400 yards twice this season, and his 524 rushing yards on 85 carries also leads the team. His favorite target is senior Jay Frye, who has 69 catches for 1,266 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The Grizzlies’ defense, however, has allowed an average of 30.9 points per game, including 66 points during a 66-22 home loss to Holy Family in their regular-season finale. That could play well into the proverbial hands of the Bears, who’s 41.8 points-per-game scoring average is ranked fourth in Class 3A.

Rifle’s rushing attack, which averages 294.2 yards per game, is also ranked fourth in the classification. But the Bears don’t have a 1,000-yard rusher yet this season. Senior Brock Clark has 988 yards on 105 carries, with three other players (Brooks Pressler, Ty Leyba and Blaine Vance) rushing for more than 400 yards each.

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