Rifle changes leagues, but expectations remain the same
Heading into the 2017 season, the Rifle Bears had to replace nearly their entire backfield in the Bears’ traditional Wing-T offense.
Tanner Vines, Joel Lopez, and senior Camron Shephard stepped up, rushing for 3,682 yards and 36 touchdowns as the Bears went 9-3 and reached the second round of the 3A state playoffs.
Shephard and two-year starting quarterback Luke Ellis graduated, but Lopez and Vines return, as does junior Levi Warfel, who rushed for 277 yards and four touchdowns last fall in a reserve role for the Bears.
For those counting at home, that’s 3,152 yards and 34 touchdowns returning in the backfield for Rifle’s vaunted Wing-T system.
Not only is the backfield loaded, the offensive line returns all-conference center Wyatt Warfel, as well as guards Paden Kinion and Ariel Herrera, and tackle Ethan Mackley, giving the Bears at least six starters from an offense that put up 28.6 points per game, including four games of 40-plus points.
“I’m really excited to play with these boys this year,” Warfel said. “This team is young in terms of the class, and I’m excited about that. We just need to come together as a band of brothers and prove people wrong this year. I hope we can get some wins this year, and hopefully go all the way. Everyone is ready to get started.”
The Bears move down to the 2A Western Slope League, where they’ll take on Aspen, Basalt, Coal Ridge, Delta, and Moffat County in the league, while maintaining the rivalry matchup with the Glenwood Springs Demons outside of conference play.
The move down a level, and the returning talent is creating quite a buzz in the city of Rifle for the upcoming football season, at least from the outside looking in for a team that has won 70 games in the last seven seasons.
“I don’t know that the expectation level changes for us,” said Damon Wells, Rifle’s head football coach. “The talented kids this year were talented kids last year coming in. I do think that it causes the expectations to be bigger with this group.
“It is fun [having a ton of kids back] in the sense that we don’t have to reteach as many things as we may have had to last year. The exciting part is to see how much we can grow.”
Taking one of the state’s best teams in the state at the 3A level and dropping it them down to the 2A level may seem like an major advantage for the Rifle Bears, but Wells and his staff don’t see it that way, considering the familiarity with the teams in the 2A Western Slope League.
“Without a doubt, we don’t think the 2A league is going to be any easier than 3A,” Wells said. “For one, all of our non-league games are against 3A teams, aside from Grand Valley. It’s the same schedule. With the 2A league, about half of those teams used to be in the 3A league. We know what it’s like to go to Delta or Moffat; it’s not easy. And it’s not going to get any easier. We’ll be prepared, and we don’t expect anything to be easy.”
The Bears start off the 2018 season by hosting Eagle Valley at Bears Stadium in Rifle, before then traveling west on I-70 to Parachute for a non-league matchup with the Grand Valley Cardinals. Following a road game against Grand Valley, Rifle travels to Pueblo County before then hosting the rival Glenwood Springs Demons on Sept. 21, which happens to be the final non-league game before the start of 2A Western Slope League play to close the season.
“The biggest change for us this year is that we’ll have nine games instead of 10,” Wells said. “Traditionally, when we go through a 10-game season, we’re pretty banged up at the end, and I’m sure it’s the same for everyone who goes through that.”