Rifle High football preview: Bears plan to embrace task at hand
Post Independent Sports Editor
HEAD COACH: Damon Wells (8th season)
LAST SEASON: 8-3 overall, 7-1 Class 3A Western Slope League (co-WSL champion), lost to eventual state champion Coronado in first round of Class 3A state playoffs.
RETURNING STARTERS, OFFENSE/DEFENSE: 6/7
BASE FORMATIONS, OFFENSE/DEFENSE: Wing-T/3-4
KEY RETURNERS: Austin Shephed, Sr., OL/DL; Alex Gould, Sr., OL/LB; Cody Rice, Sr., TE/LB; Austin Boone, Sr., TE/DL; Layton Stutsman, Sr., QB/DB; Ty Leyba, Jr., RB/DB; Brock Clark, Sr., RB/LB; Austin Knight, Sr., WR/DB; Jose Prado, Sr., OL/DL.
COULD MAKE A SPLASH: Tyler Bosshardt, Jr., WR/CB; Joe Kosht, Jr., C; Blane Vance, Soph., RB/LB; Gage Johnston, Jr., OT/DE; Brooks Pressler, Sr., RB/S; Davy Fugita, Sr., RB/CB.
POTENTIAL KEY GAMES: Oct. 2 at Grand Junction Central; Oct. 10 vs. Palisade; Oct. 24 at Glenwood Springs. Central, which is playing down a classification after getting beat up in the 5A/4A Southwestern League for four years, will precede a key home game against a Bulldogs team that the Bears shared the WSL title with. Then there’s the Glenwood game, which has an air of importance regardless of what part of the season it’s played in.
RIFLE — The expectations set by the Rifle High School football team for the 2014 season aren’t any different than they’ve been in the past. The Bears are more wary of the journey that awaits them.
“We have a ton of kids coming back with a ton of experience, and our expectations are very high,” eighth-year Rifle coach Damon Wells said. “But as far as wins and losses in our league, it’s safe to say that it will be exponentially tougher.”
The task Wells spoke of was playing in the Class 3A Western Slope League, which Rifle has won at least a share of for the past three years. Realignment done by the Colorado High School Activities Association last season, however, dropped Battle Mountain, Montezuma-Cortez and Moffat County down a classification and replaced those teams with Summit and Grand Junction Central.
Wells contended that Rifle could do much more with its team if the school’s enrollment was similar to the 1,500 or so students that Central has. Still, everyone on Rifle’s 2014 squad also contends that the Bears have plenty to work with — especially from the standpoint of experience — going into the season
“It’s a long process, but we’ve seen all of the success that the older kids have had in the past,” senior wide receiver and defensive back Austin Knight said. “We’ve watched them do that over the years, and now it’s our time to step in. We’re used to that success, and we want to use that to our advantage headed into the first game of the season.”
Rifle shared the league championship with Palisade last year, finishing tied with the Bulldogs atop the 3A WSL standings. All total, the Bears have lost five games in the past three seasons.
That success has come thanks to a stout defense that keeps opponents out of the end zone and a running-back-by-committee offense that can break off big plays in an instant. Don’t tell that to anyone on this year’s roster, though.
“We try not to dwell on the past as much as possible,” senior linebacker and lineman Austin Shepherd said. “We learn from past mistakes and such and try to build on that. But in general, we’re a whole new team this year.”
The Bears will also have some new looks on offense headed into the Aug. 22 home opener against former league opponent Moffat County. Wells said he’s happy with the way the Bears’ passing game has progressed during preseason workouts, and Rifle’s offense has installed a no-huddle approach that looked crisp during the first week of two-a-day practices.
“Anything we can do to improve on what we’re already doing, we’re absolutely going to try to take advantage of that,” Wells said.
That might be a tough task in itself. Rifle averaged 346.1 rushing yards per game last year, which was tops in Class 3A and fourth among all classifications in Colorado, according to statistics provided by http://www.maxpreps.com. They also had three running backs with at least 850 yards rushing, losing seniors Kellin Leigh and Javier Nunez to graduation.
Senior fullback Brock Clark (891 yards, 11 touchdowns on 82 carries), who averaged 10.87 yards per carry in 2013, will return to the backfield. Ty Leba, Brooks Pressler and Davy Fugia are also expected to step into a key role in the backfield along with returning starting quarterback Layton Stutsman, whose game-management skills were a huge key for Rifle last year.
Knight’s 24 catches for 444 yards were both team highs last season, and senior tight end Austin Boone will play a key role as a receiver and blocker. They all made a difference during the Bears’ 7-on-7 summer passing camps, where they saw success during camps at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Northern Colorado in Greeley and the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“We truly believe that success breeds success,” Wells said.
Also back are Alex Gould and Jose Prado, who will help anchor the offensive line. They’ll also play a key role on a Rifle defense that allowed just 139 points in 11 games last season.
Rifle his hoping to maintain that success, no matter who the Bears play.
“It really doesn’t matter to us that the schedule has changed,” Shepherd said. “As long as we focus on what we’re doing, we should be OK.”
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