A WINNING FORMULA
For Palisade, physical, fundamental football the key
Palisade High School coach Joe Ramunno’s reputation as a successful playoff coach is undisputed.
The four-time state championship coach knows every team in the Class 3A playoffs is dangerous, and he has some concerns for his second-seeded Bulldogs as they take on 15th-seeded Lutheran on Saturday at Stocker Stadium.
Lutheran (8-2) will challenge Palisade (9-1) with a balanced offensive attack and a highly effective quarterback who has thrown for more than 2,000 yards this season. A good passing game is something that Western Slope Conference teams don’t see a lot.
“(It’s) always a concern for us,” Ramunno said about the passing game. “Their receivers are all very tall and athletic. Great QB that is tough along with a great running game.”
Lutheran head coach Daryl Moe faced Ramunno in the college ranks when Moe was offensive coordinator for Adams State and Ramunno was the head coach at Colorado Mesa.
With only 331 students, the Parker school is the smallest school in the Class 3A playoffs. Moe said the private school made the decision to play up a classification despite its enrollment.
He knows what to expect with the Bulldogs, and it won’t be easy to stop them.
“They are a real physical team, a real tough team,” he said. “They do a great job with that offense, and it will be a huge challenge for us.”
Moe added his team wants to be balanced on offense and let the game dictate how it plays, but if the Lions hope to pull off the upset, they will have to be effective getting the ball to their wide receivers.
The Lions have been balanced throughout the season, averaging 206 yards passing and 198 yards rushing per game.
Palisade’s flexbone offensive attack, which averaged 332 yards rushing per game, has given teams trouble all season and relies on two main runners to chew up yardage.
Big, physical senior Levi Hoaglund, playing his first season at quarterback, has rushed for 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns, and quick-footed senior Dalton Hannigan has gone for 1,144 and 17 TDs. He also scored a TD via kickoff return.
The Bulldogs throw sparingly and only averaged 42 yards per game passing, but they can be effective, as their last-minute 28-27 comeback victory over Rifle demonstrated. Tass Crow leads the team with five touchdown receptions.
Defensively, seniors Jake Millard and Zach Marengo lead a physical group in the Bulldogs’ front seven.
Palisade’s lone loss came on the road at Delta, which used a good passing game and a 200-yard rushing game to help the Panthers to a 31-21 win.
In the secondary, the Bulldogs have quick and athletic playmakers and ball hawks. The group has 19 interceptions, and once they have the ball in their mitts, they are looking for to take it to the house. Eight of those 19 pickoffs have been returned for touchdowns.
Lutheran comes out of the Metro West Conference, where three teams qualified for the 16-team playoffs. The WSC is the only conference with four teams in the postseason, with Rifle, Delta and Glenwood Springs joining Palisade.
Lutheran QB James Willis has thrown for 2,008 yards, 23 TDs and just six interceptions during the regular season. His two main receivers are Joshua Claussen, a 6-4 junior who has 39 catches for 775 yards, and Alex Nemmers, a 6-2 junior with 601 yards on 31 catches.
Jamil Bond has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and has 24 TDs on the season.
For Ramunno, a winning formula in the playoffs is no different than winning in the regular season.
“We have to play disciplined, physical and fundamentally sound football to have any chance at a victory,” he said.
Rifle at Coronado
The 11th-seeded Rifle Bears (8-2) are facing a huge task when they face sixth-seeded Coronado (9-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday in Colorado Springs.
Size will be the main factor, according to Rifle coach Damon Wells.
“They are significantly bigger than us both in population and weight. We will have to fight like crazy to not be shoved around the field,” he said.
Coronado, which has an enrollment of 1,331 students, is a Class 4A-sized school but petitioned to move down after several bad seasons.
Rifle averages more than 42 points per game, but Coronado has given up only 77 points all season, the fewest points allowed in 3A. Rifle’s 105 points allowed is second best in 3A.
Over the past two years, few teams have shoved the Bears around. Rifle’s powerful and diverse rushing attack is the best in 3A, averaging more than 365 yards a game. Senior Kellin Leigh, who has 1,150 yards, leads the team, with Javier Nunez and Brock Clark each with more than 850 yards.
Rifle averages 56 yards passing per game.
Defensively, the Bears have been solid all year and are led by hard-hitting junior linebacker Austin Shepard, senior safety Bailey Hoffmeister and senior linebacker Zach Bare, who has 9 1/2 sacks on the season.
In the Bears’ two losses, they turned the ball over seven times and had a number of key penalties.
“We have to hang on to the ball. Through 10 games last season we lost seven fumbles. Through 10 games this season we have lost 16,” he said.
Rifle lost the state title game to Silver Creek last year. Wells said playoff experience should help the Bears.
“Experience is invaluable. We are very fortunate to have a group of boys who have already played in six playoff games,” he said.
He said as a group, the seniors are 32-4 in their careers.
Coronado is big, physical team that has rushed for more than 2,600 yards as a team and has a pair of junior runners with more than 850 yards rushing with Isaah Duvall leading the team with 996 yards in nine games. Senior Joah Smith leads the passing game with 1,117 yards and eight TDs.
Delta at Holy Family
When 13th-seeded Delta (7-3) battles fourth-seeded Holy Family (8-1) on Saturday, it will be a matchup of diverse offenses.
The Panthers average 176 yards through the air and 208 yards on the ground. The Northern Conference champion Tigers, out of Broomfield, averaged 151 yards via the air and 234 yards on the ground.
Both teams are averaging right at 35 points per game.
Preparing for a spread offense with a good passing game will be a challenge, Delta head coach Ben Johnson said.
“Over here we have so many good running games, and (the Tigers) spread the field, so we are going to have to be very disciplined in our assignments,” he said.
The Panthers, who came in as the 13th seed last year and advanced to the quarterfinals, are making their third playoff appearance since 2009.
Junior quarterback Cade Gafford has thrown for 1,700 yards and 21 touchdowns and just two interceptions for Delta. Sophomore Jonny Ponce has 1,288 yards rushing, and senior Ryan Whiteside has 57 receptions and 875 yards for the Panthers.
The Tigers run an effective spread offense that relies heavily on the running and throwing of quarterback David Sommers. The senior threw for 1,340 yards and 10 TDs and ran for 1,014 yards and 14 TDs in eight games. He had a 213-yard rushing game in the regular-season finale.
Johnson said Delta will try to be as balanced as possible. He also said playing in a tough conference helps once the playoffs begin.
“We prepared ourselves in very in a very tough league, and we’re excited to take our brand of football over (to the Front Range),” he said.