Rifle ready for more after loss in state title game
It’s a new-old era for the Rifle Bears.
Gone is all-state running back and safety Ryan Moeller. Gone are many of his cohorts who led the Bears to the Class 3A state title game that resulted in a heartbreaking loss to Silver Creek.
But returning for Rifle is a sound tradition and foundation of success that has led them to three state championship games in the past nine years.
Damon Wells, who will be in his seventh year as the head coach and his 16th year with the program, said it’s that foundation and tradition that is cause for excitement again this year.
“We have great kids who are willing to make a sacrifice,” he said. “We definitely did our work in the offseason.”
More players participated in the team’s summer weight-training program than ever before, he said.
It’s no secret replacing the horse that Moeller was will take a team effort, but Wells believes the stable is full of potential.
Without Moeller, the Bears plan to have a more balanced offensive attack in 2013.
“I think we will be more diverse,” Wells said. “A kid like Ryan doesn’t come along very often, but we still have some good boys. Ryan was a special player and we leaned on him.”
The Bears will use three or four runners to handle the ground attack, with senior Javier Nunez and junior Brock Clark getting the bulk of the carries. Versatile Kellin Leigh returns for his senior season at the wing/slot position.
The Bears will have a new quarterback this year in Layton Stutsman. Although he didn’t see any action under center last year, the junior saw lots of playing time on defense in the secondary.
Wells says Stutsman is a good runner with a good arm.
The Bears will play the same Wing-T system offensively, they just won’t have the best runner in Class 3A to hand the ball to anymore.
“We’ll throw the football more than we have in the past, and I think that will help us,” Wells said.
Junior wide receiver Austin Knight and 6-6 senior tight end Tanner Quick are expected to make an impact in the passing game for the Bears.
On defense, Rifle returns a number of players who saw extensive action last season. During the state title game, the Bears had six sophomores on the field on defense at times.
One of those players was Austin Shepherd. The stout inside linebacker showed his potential as a powerful tackler last year, and Wells said he is significantly stronger this year. Shepherd also will play guard on offense.
“We didn’t rely on one kid last year on defense, and we were successful,” Wells said.
That success included six shutouts.
The coach also said senior safety Bailey Hoffmeister will be another key on defense.
The Bears have traditionally been on the smaller size, and 2013 won’t be any different, but the team’s gang-tackling, swarming, hard-nosed defensive play has been a staunch Rifle reputation for years.
“The single reason why we were successful on defense is our kids demonstrated a willingness and desire to run to the football,” Wells said of the 2012 squad.
Wells is excited to see how the 2013 team develops without Moeller and the lost leadership from the 2012 team. He is depending on this team to embrace the tradition of success and the next-man-up mentality the Rifle program has developed over the years.
The new era for the Bears will be a more balanced offense with new players ready to be part of the next generation of Rifle football. The old era remains at Rifle with its intense defensive philosophy and willingness to gang tackle and play hard-nosed football.
“Since that day in December (the state title game), the kids have worked like crazy,” Wells said. “Replacing a kid like Ryan Moeller is going to take a group effort. We know that he’s not here to get us out of tough situations.”