No. 10 Rifle rushes past No. 7 Evergreen in 3A first round
LAKEWOOD — A four-touchdown performance from junior wingback Joel Lopez and 506 total yards on the ground led the No. 10 Rifle Bears to a dominating 37-10 win Saturday over No. 7 Evergreen in the first round of the 3A Colorado High School Activities Association’s football playoffs.
In the Cougars’ Trailblazer Stadium, Rifle moved up and down the field methodically, wearing down the hosts to the point of frustration, running 66 total plays, with 60 of them coming on the ground in the 27-point win.
“I certainly don’t want to be a downer after this game, but we could certainly be a lot better moving forward,” Rifle head coach Damon Wells said. “I thought our kids played physical, but responsibility-wise we didn’t do such a great job. I thought our running backs did a great job of running hard, but we know what it’s like in the playoffs. Anything can happen on any given day, so anytime you’re fortunate enough to get a win like this, it just gets more difficult moving forward.”
Rifle, now 10-2 on the year, hosts No. 2, undefeated Palmer Ridge in the 3A quarterfinals on Saturday, Nov. 18, at Bears Stadium. Kickoff is tentatively scheduled for 1 p.m.
From the first drive of the game, it was clear the Cougars didn’t have much of an answer for Rifle’s wing-T offense as the Bears took the opening kickoff and marched 80 yards on 10 plays. Lopez capped the drive with a 15-yard burst around right end. The ensuing extra point sailed wide left, but the Bears had an early 6-0 lead with 7:38 left in the first quarter.
Evergreen’s first possession looked very similar to Rifle’s start, as the Cougars pounded the ball on the ground against the Rifle front seven, marching from their own 26-yard line to get into the red zone. The drive stalled though as two incomplete passes from senior quarterback Jack Wagner forced the Cougars to settle for a 37-yard field goal from senior Evan Price. The Cougars were on the board with 3:57 left in the first quarter.
Following Evergreen’s lengthy drive, the hot Rifle offense took the field for its second possession of the game. Four plays later it looked like junior fullback Tanner Vines would coast into the end zone for a 63-yard touchdown, but an Evergreen defender refused to quit on the play and caught Vines from behind at the 1-yard line, forcing a fumble that the Cougars recovered and returned to their own 15-yard line, causing a major swing in momentum late in the first quarter.
Rifle’s defense forced a three-and-out, though, giving the ball back to the Bear offense, which had yet to be stopped by Evergreen’s defense.
This time it was the Cougars’ turn to catch a break as the Bears — starting in great field position thanks to a short punt from Price — turned the ball over on downs in just four plays deep in Evergreen territory.
Price redeemed himself on Evergreen’s next possession following a three-and-out, uncorking a big 62-yard punt to pin Rifle at its own 13-yard line. With their backs to the wall, the Bears broke through once again, essentially turning the game on its head.
Facing a long field ahead and clinging to a 6-3 lead early in the second quarter, Rifle marched 87 yards in 18 plays, chewing up most of the second quarter before Lopez found the end zone for the second time on the day, this time from 14 yards out with 1:54 left in the first half. A two-point conversion by senior running back Camron Shepherd stretched the Rifle lead to 14-3, firing up the Bear fans who made the long trek to Lakewood for the game.
After Rifle’s 18-play drive, the defense forced a turnover immediately as senior cornerback Elijah Whitman stepped in front of Wagner’s first pass on the ensuing series, setting the Bears up on Evergreen’s side of the field with 1:30 left in the first half.
Two plays later, Vines sprinted up the gut of the Evergreen defense and into the end zone untouched for a 21-3 Rifle lead, which would be the score the Bears took into the half.
Trailing by 18 at home at the half, Evergreen made some adjustments and came out strong to start the third quarter. Taking the second-half kickoff, Evergreen marched 65 yards in just seven plays — highlighted by a pitch-and-catch from Wagner to senior wide receiver Matthew O’Donnell. Wagner kept it on a QB sneak from 1-yard line to pull the Cougars to within 11 points at 21-10 early in the third quarter.
Getting the ball for the first time in the second half, Rifle continued its torrid pace on the ground as the Bears marched 80 yards in 10 runs before Lopez scored for the third time, this one from 11 yards out, to give Rifle a 28-10 lead with 3:33 left in the third quarter.
With time running short on their season, the Cougars tried to answer Rifle’s score with one of their own, but a big sack on Wagner by senior Ramon Salvidrez and sophomore Ariel Herrera ended the Evergreen drive, giving the Rifle offense a chance to put the game away for good.
Following a 55-yard run by Vines at the end of the third quarter to set the Bears up at the Cougars’ 11-yard line, Rifle settled for a 29-yard field goal from junior Eduardo Ruiz after a Lopez touchdown was called back for holding.
Trailing 31-10 early in the fourth quarter, Evergreen desperately needed a scoring drive, but a turnover on downs in just four plays gave Rifle the ball back. The Bears couldn’t do anything with the drive — a rarity on the day — so Evergreen had one last real crack to get back into the game.
They appeared to do just that as Wagner found Price down the middle, where the senior receiver made a tremendous one-handed catch. After reeling in the pass, Price weaved his way down the field for what looked to be an 81-yard scoring strike, but a block in the back penalty near the end of the run negated the touchdown.
Four plays later Wagner was stopped short of the sticks on a fourth-down scramble, giving Rifle the ball back with the game well in hand.
That didn’t stop the Bears’ offense though, as Lopez took a handoff around right end, made a defender miss near the right sideline and raced 49 yards for the score — his fourth of the day and seventh in his last two games — to cap off the win for the Bears.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did without the guys up front,” Lopez, who took his sophomore year off from football, said following the Rifle win. “They were great all week in practice leading up to today, and without them clearing the way I wouldn’t have been able to score today. With the success we had today, we know we can keep improving and winning games if we stay focused and keep moving forward. This feels great to win today; it’s my first playoff win, so it’s very memorable to me.”
Vines made sure no miracle would happen as the junior linebacker stepped in front of Wagner’s first pass on the next drive, ending Evergreen’s season.
Against the Cougars, Vines finished with 290 rushing yards and one touchdown on 25 carries, while Shepherd added 105 yards on 20 carries. Lopez finished the game with 118 rushing yards and four touchdowns on nine carries in the win.
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