Memories of Austin Booth help Rifle FB team strengthen bond

A number 2 sticker adorns each Rifle football players helmet, a reminder of Austin Booth, who died last year from complications of influenza. The Bears (10-0) play Roosevelt today in the 3A playoffs.

RIFLE — Reminders of Austin Booth are everywhere.

Rifle High School football coach Damon Wells has a photo of Booth and running backs Taylor Webb and Ryan Moeller holding hands in uniform prior to a game last season. Another photo of Booth, which Webb said has somehow circulated into households around Rifle, hangs in Wells’ office at the high school.

A No. 2 sticker, Booth’s jersey number, adorns each football helmet, and memories of Booth’s infectious smile and positive attitude still grace the locker room, classrooms and hallways at Rifle.

Those memories are still fresh less than a year after Booth died Jan. 17 at St. Mary’s Hospital from complications of influenza.

It’s certain Booth’s memory will fill Bears Stadium today when fourth-seeded Rifle (10-0) hosts No. 13 Roosevelt (8-2) in the first round of the Class 3A state playoffs. Kickoff is at 1 p.m.

“There’s a concept that all of us know that anything can happen at any time now,” said Webb, one of Booth’s good friends.

“That’s the greatest thing that came out of this. It’s not the only good thing. But another good thing is that it brought us all closer together, not just as a team, but as a school.

“And when we pull off our helmets and see that No. 2 on there, it tells us we have to pull our stuff together and play for him. That makes a big difference.”

That extra motivation has made a big difference for the 3A Western Slope Conference champion Bears, who average 382.4 rushing yards per game.

Moeller (2,198 yards on 248 carries) and Brandon Kittle (1,127 yards, 110 carries) shoulder most of the load for Rifle, which faces a Roosevelt team that also has a run-first offense (286.7 rushing yards per game).

Christian Kratz (790 yards), Marcus Holguin (751) and Juan Sanchez (591) pace Roosevelt’s offense, with 13 players carrying the ball this season.

Carrying the burden of Booth’s death, however, is not something the Bears have been doing.

Instead, they’ve focused on all the positive things Booth did as a player and friend.

One of Webb’s favorite memories was eating an entire bucket of cheeseballs watching Pokémon movies between two-a-day basketball practices, insisting it wasn’t “dorky” because of the company he kept.

Another was when, after a loss to Coal Ridge last season, Booth was the one consoling Wells.

“We were up 7-6 and Austin missed a pass that, if he would have caught it, would have won the game for us,” Wells said. “He was only in his second game playing with us, so I went over to tell him it was going to be OK and that we all still loved him.

“Instead, when I got there, he put his arm around me and said, ‘It’s OK, Coach. We’ll get ‘em next year.’

“I’ve been coaching football for 14 years and I’ve never had something like that happen to me. It just goes to show how positive he was.”

That positive vibe continued into this season, helping the Bears go undefeated during the regular season for the first time since 2002.

It’s a vibe Rifle hopes will continue at least through the weekend.

“I think every sports team out there views themselves as a family,” Webb said. “But when something like this happens, you only can get closer. We want to keep getting closer as a family.”

Class 4A

Greeley West (7-3) at Montrose (9-1), 1 p.m.: Angelo Youngren (1,258 rushing yards) and Drew Casebier (1,210 passing yards) pace a balanced Montrose attack. The Spartans, however, have quarterback Brandon Gallatin (114 for 206, 1,759 yards passing) and 12 players who have carried the ball this season.

Class 2A

The Academy (8-2) at Olathe (7-3), 1 p.m.: The Pirates, who won their fourth-consecutive 2A Western Slope Conference crown this season, open defense of their state championship. Cole Grett’s 213-yard rushing performance in a 40-21 win at Aspen on Oct. 28 helped seal the WSC title, but the Pirates boast a balanced offensive attack. The Academy averages 300 rushing yards per game and is led by Barron Underwood’s team-high 1,812 yards on the ground.

Class 1A

Hotchkiss (10-0) at Resurrection Christian (7-3), 1 p.m.: The Bulldogs are one of three remaining unbeaten teams in 1A football and they’ve given up fewer points (68) than any team in the classification. Resurrection Christian, however, averaged 34.4 points per game, which ranks fifth in the classification. Hotchkiss is first (47.4 points per game).


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