Rifle’s girls basketball team battled through adversity in 2018-19 season

Josh Carney
Post Independent

Rifle junior April Quinones drives to the hoop during a home game against Steamboat Springs during the 2018-19 season inside Jack Smith Gymnasium.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The final record of 6-17 (6-6 4A Western Slope League) doesn’t look great on paper for the Rifle Bears girls basketball program, especially after the four-year run the Bears had with standout guard Elly Walters, center Peyton Caldwell, and twin guards Karlie and Katie Manupella embarked on under former head coach Kristie Wallner.

Graduation, and the resignation of Wallner, hit the Bears basketball program hard, leaving Rifle shorthanded top to bottom in the system. That made for a hard situation to come into for first-year head coach Eric Caro, but the former Glenwood Springs Middle School basketball coach eagerly took on the challenge and turned the Rifle program around after a tough 0-9 start that could very well have buried other programs and coaches.

Not Rifle though.

“I feel like that start was big for me, just to learn a lot about myself,” Caro said. “I told the girls during that stretch of games that I was doing as much growing as they were. I had never been in that situation before as a coach, so as a group we had to make sure we were instilling confidence in the girls despite losing the way we did to start the season.”

The 0-9 mark looked ugly on paper, but in reality the Bears opened the season with a very tough schedule. In that nine-game stretch, the Bears faced six playoff teams, highlighted by Coal Ridge (twice), Roaring Fork, Montrose, Meeker, Moffat County and rival Glenwood Springs. The average margin of defeat in those first nine games was 15 points, with the largest margin of defeat being 28 points to Moffat County. Four of the first nine games came against top 10 teams in the state in 2A, 3A and 4A.

“It was somewhat difficult during that time,” junior April Quinones said. “Nobody likes to lose, but we knew we were right there in all of those games, we just had to do a better job of closing the game in the second half. We knew we had the talent, but we needed to work on our effort level in the second half.”

While the losses hurt, it helped harden the Bears under Caro, leading to a resurgence in league play that saw the Bears take out the Battle Mountain Huskies — the eventual league championship — in a home upset with a last-second free throw by sophomore Mackenzie Elizardo, as well as wins over Eagle Valley, Summit and Steamboat Springs.

“Even at oh and nine, we knew the talent was there, and we knew we were close in so many games,” Caro said. “That’s why we couldn’t — and wouldn’t — give up on this group or this season. At no point were we like, ‘OK, season’s gone.’ That thought … never once crossed any of our minds.”

Thanks to the positivity from the coaching staff, and the consistency in preparation, the Bears started to click after a tough opening stretch, defeating Steamboat Springs at home on Jan. 12 for the first win of the season, which also happened to be the second game in 4A WSL play.

The win at home seemed to jump-start the Bears — who played with just seven varsity players all season — as Rifle reeled off four wins in the next seven games, getting the Bears back on track while putting them near the top of the 4A WSL standings under Caro.

“We really started to grow together and really come together as a team,” Elizardo said. “We weren’t really together in the beginning of the year, but once we really started to jell, you could see it on the court when we started to win games.”

“I was just so happy to see all their hard work paying off in the form of wins,” added Caro. “They started to really believe in themselves individually and as a team, and the rest really took care of itself once we got into league play.”

In league play, the Bears had that thrilling upset win over Battle Mountain, and also nabbed a two-overtime win over Summit on the road, all while relying on a short bench.

The final league game of the year saw the Bears play with just six players, but by that point the foundation for the Rifle program under Caro had been built, raising the excitement level for Year Two under Caro. Fortunately for the Rifle program, Quinones, Elizardo, junior Delaney Phillips, and freshman Jamie Caron and Sage Allen will all return next season, giving the Bears veteran presences across the board, all of which went through the ups and down of the 2018-19 season.

“I think next year will be really fun,” Phillips said. “We really grew close as a group and came together as the season progressed. I really think we’re just going to continue to get better and better.”

“We’re pretty excited for next year,” added Elizardo. “We’re going to put in a lot of work this summer and really surprise the rest of the league. I feel like there’s a lot of teams in the league that will be surprised by us next season.”

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