Tigers’ ‘D’ shows its teeth
GJ defense shuts down Westminster in first round
Grand Junction had as many plays in the first half Friday night as Westminster had in its 21-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to take an 8-7 lead in their Class 5A football playoff at Stocker Stadium.
Tyler Heinsma threw an interception near the Westminster goal line, and momentum had firmly swung in the Wolves’ direction.
Enter an unlikely hero to force momentum back to the Tigers, momentum they carried to a 32-8 victory in the first-round state playoff game.
Senior linebacker Robbie Gonzalez, leading a pack of Grand Junction defenders, stuffed Westminster running back Ryan Belearde on a fourth-down attempt inside Grand Junction’s red zone in the second quarter.
Grand Junction turned around and took a 15-8 lead on a 12-yard run from Heinsma right before halftime.
In the second half, a better-than-advertised Grand Junction defense turned in three interceptions and consistently pressured Westminster quarterback Jake Walklett.
Gonzalez said it was part of a mentality change as Grand Junction heads into a second-round rematch at Columbine, which bounced the Tigers from the 2012 Class 5A playoffs with a 37-20 win.
“I mean, as you can see, we made a lot of changes on defense, and a lot of them stuck,” Gonzalez said. “We’re happy with the changes. We’re tackling better, we’re making big plays, we’re making plays in the secondary. We’ve had a lot of progression as a group. All-around, we’re stacked. I feel solid about us.”
Defensive back Dion Martinez had two interceptions and was a terror in the backfield for the Tigers. He jumped in front of two touch passes, flashing in at the last second to stop two drives in Grand Junction territory during the second half.
Martinez said the secondary, which had been torched in multiple games earlier in the season, learned the correct positioning to complement their athleticism.
“Alignment and assignment,” Martinez said. “I mean that’s all it really is for us. We’ve always had that big-play potential. Coming into this (game), we hadn’t really pushed ourselves the way we wanted to or met the goals we had set at the beginning of the year as a secondary. We said that this is the playoffs, and it’s our time to rise up and get better.
“We needed guys to do their job. Because when you do your job, plays will come to you.”
Jack Parsons, also a defensive back, had two big plays before exiting in the third quarter with a noncontact injury to his right knee.
Parsons, playing wide receiver early in the third quarter, laid a crushing block to spring Heinsma for a rushing touchdown from 13 yards out. It was Heinsma’s third rushing TD of the game.
On Westminster’s ensuing drive, Parsons jumped in front of a slant route and returned the interception 32 yards for a touchdown.
Heinsma finished with 16 carries for 201 yards in a performance where his legs outdid his arm.
Heinsma said his performance will be momentum to “carry into Columbine.”
For Tigers coach Robbie Owens, playing Columbine is a chance at redemption. No. 7 Columbine beat No. 26 Hinkley 57-27 on Friday night.
It’s a tired storyline, Owens said, but it’s one Grand Junction has used since the beginning of the season.
“When we talked during the summer, I said that I want to play Columbine, I want to play Cherry Creek, I want to play Valor Christian,” Owens said. “We get that opportunity. Like I told these kids, we’re not going to shy away from anyone.”
NOTES: Parsons was on crutches after the game, and Owens said the extent of the injury will determine whether the junior will play against Columbine ... Tigers running back Austin Lewis hobbled through the fourth quarter after reaggravating an ankle injury on a run. Lewis was down momentarily, but returned. He finished with 101 yards on 11 carries.