Jussel: True Western Slope football champion may be Rifle

Way back when, before “I Love Lucy” and Edsels, the playing field was even for high school football teams.

Big school, little school, didn’t matter. The biggest and baddest athletes from schools of all sizes banged leather-covered heads. Face masks? We don’t need no stinking face masks.

Each town had its own high school, one per town. And each town had its seven or eight or nine big mean fellas. Those big mean fellas played offensively and defensively and battled for four quarters, usually against the same big ugly mug on the other side of the ball.

The best Western Slope “town team” ever was the 1936 Grand Junction High School “Wonder Team,” a squad that went unscored upon that year and for most of the next season. The 1936 Tigers beat teams from Rifle, Fruita, Glenwood Springs, Palisade, Olathe, Paonia, Montrose and Cedaredge before clinching the Western Slope title with a win over Delta. Also included in their early schedule were wins over Jordan and Price, Utah, with Jordan the defending Utah state champion.

After winning that Western Slope title, the Tigers then slipped past Salida 6-0 in the state semifinals in the “unclassified” division, the only classification in existence at the time, before winning the state title 20-0 over Loveland at Lincoln Park.

I’m bringing this up now because this bit of history was brought to mind the other day in talking with a couple of prep football fans who suggested history was rearing its head and being revisited on the Western Slope, taking us back this season to the days of small-town football.

If we were to play a true Western Slope championship this season, the title would not go to the biggest schools: Class 5A Grand Junction or Fruita Monument.

The title, if rankings according to MaxPreps, the athletic bookkeeping arm of the Colorado High School Activities Association, would most likely go to Class 3A Rifle.

All Damon Wells’ team has done thus far is go 8-0 and outscore its opponents 360-22, with senior tailback Ryan Moeller certainly among the state’s top players with 1,791 yards on the ground on an average of 12 yards per carry and 27 touchdowns.

Rifle is the 16th-rated team in all classifications in the state, according to MaxPreps, with the next-highest-ranked Western Slope team, Grand Junction, now in the 38th spot after slipping to 5-3 on the season.

Which brings us back to our mythical Western Slope championship: Rifle would be the favorite, but no shoo-in.

For one thing, it’ll be a hot time in old Delta town Friday night when Rifle travels to meet 6-2 Delta, another Class 3A team. While Rifle would certainly appear to be a favorite against Ben Johnson’s Delta team, the Panthers can’t be overlooked because they have beaten, among others, quality foes in Palisade and Eagle Valley.

Yes, that’s right; I said Eagle Valley.

John Ramunno’s Class 3A team is 7-1 on the season (losing 25-23 to Delta) and plays its season finale next weekend against Rifle, after a rather key game Friday night against John Arledge’s 6-2 Palisade team. Eagle Valley, with wins over Delta and Palisade, would certainly be thrown into the Western Slope championship equation.

Let’s assume Rifle, however, wins out in the regular season, beating Delta and Eagle Valley.

So they are the Western Slope champs, right?

Not so fast Bearbreath.

What about Montrose? We can’t forget about Todd Casebier’s Class 4A Indians for several reasons, although they have a rather pedestrian 5-3 record.

Let’s look closer.

Montrose, currently leading the Class 4A/5A Southwestern Conference, lost its season opener to Vista Ridge, the fourth-ranked 4A team and now 7-1, getting hammered 45-6 in Colorado Springs.

Then the Indians settled in. After a couple of easy wins (one of those 35-0 over Delta), they lost 20-19 to the unbeaten top-ranked 4A team, 8-0 Pueblo West, then to the sixth-ranked 4A team, 7-1 Monarch, 28-12.

Montrose has not lost to a Western Slope team.

Factor in Indian wins over Fruita Monument (28-25) and Grand Junction (41-21), and it’s relatively easy to see Casebier’s squad belongs in our mythical Western Slope title race. The Indians close the regular season with games at Durango and at home against winless Central.

Montrose and Rifle for all the Western Slope marbles? It would be one helluva football game.

And it just might rekindle memories of some of those great small-school teams from our area that may have been able to strap it on against anyone: Hotchkiss of 1949; Paonia of 1959; Fruita of 1966; Roaring Fork of 1973; or the Palisade squads of the mid-90s.

Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.


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