Another year ... another cat fight: Conference bragging rights on the line for Tigers, Wildcats
There are so many story lines for Friday night’s football game between Grand Junction and Fruita Monument, it’s hard to know where to begin.
Let’s break it down into four quarters.
First Quarter: Rivalry Week
The first word many of the players and coaches say when it comes to this 66-game rivalry is environment.
“This is what we all play for, the Friday night lights against Junction,” Fruita Monument wide receiver Tyler Daniels said. “This is the last time for me to play them so we’ll be ready.”
For seniors such as Daniels and Grand Junction running back Andy Willett, the contest has a special meaning because it’s the final game of their high school careers against the rival school.
“There has always been that competitiveness,” Willett said. “We’ve been competing against these kids for a long time, and now it’s to the peak of that rivalry.”
Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens is entering his third game against Fruita Monument, and got a taste of how competitive the rivalry is early on.
During Owens’ first season, 2008, the Wildcats won 18-14 on a late 41-yard touchdown pass from Brett Nankervis to Scott Miller.
Owens said he realized quickly it was a different type of game.
“Both student bodies are there, and everyone is going to be pumped up to be a part of this game,” Owens said. “So you have to understand that there is going to be a different atmosphere and a higher intensity, but at the same time our guys have to realize it’s a game of football and we just have to go out and play.”
Second Quarter: the sidelines
In 2007, Shawn Marsh was the head coach at Grand Junction. He’s now Fruita Monument’s head coach.
Marsh compiled a 47-29 record in seven seasons at Grand Junction, and led the Tigers to the 2005 Class 4A state title game.
“That was one of the best times of my life. I taught and coached there for a long time and some of my best friends are still at that school,” Marsh said.
When Marsh took the job at Fruita, a few members of the Grand Junction coaching staff joined him.
Fruita Monument’s offensive coordinator, Phil Johnston, and defensive coordinator, Sean Mulvey, were both on the Tigers’ staff last season.
Owens said he expects the Wildcats to be well prepared for the Tigers’ offensive and defensive schemes.
“They know our offense and Coach Johnston was a big part of our last two years and building where we are at now,” Owens said. “So they’ll have some inside info, but at the same time we aren’t going to veer off of what we do.
“Our kids know they have to go out and block and tackle or we won’t come away with a victory.”
Third Quarter: What’s at stake?
Grand Junction (6-1) enters Friday’s game on a six-game winning streak and is coming off lopsided wins against Central (49-21) and Montrose (49-13). The Tigers are in line for their first Southwestern Conference championship since 2005.
Fruita Monument (3-4) is also 2-0 in the conference with wins over Central (19-14) and Durango (42-29).
Last week, the Wildcats defeated Loveland 10-7.
The winner of Friday’s game has the inside track to the SWC championship, with every other conference team having at least one loss.
“We have back-to-back weeks of big SWL games,” Willett said. “This can be a deciding factor for who’s going to be the SWL champions and that’s a huge motivator with this game.”
The winner of the conference isn’t guaranteed a spot in the Class 5A playoffs, but a win Friday would improve both teams’ wild-card points, which is how the 5A playoffs are seeded.
The top 32 teams make the postseason. Grand Junction is seventh in the wild-card standings with 95.286 points. Fruita Monument is 27th with 77.875 points.
“We are at this point where we control our own destiny,” Marsh said. “We are going to prepare for Junction, and I know both teams will be ready to play.”
Fourth Quarter: Between the lines
Offensively both teams have plenty of weapons. Grand Junction is led by junior quarterback Sean Rubalcaba.
Last week against Montrose, Rubalcaba had 323 yards of total offense, including 229 on the ground.
“Rubalcaba is a big focus for us,” Marsh said. “He throws the ball very well, but he’s also a great runner.”
Grand Junction’s spread option offense gives Rubalcaba plenty of outlets, both running and throwing.
With Rubalcaba in charge of the offense, the Tigers broke out last week against Montrose with six touchdowns of 20 yards or longer.
“Junction has had some big plays in all of its games,” Marsh said. “That’ll be a key, to stop the big plays and make them grind it out.”
In the past three games, Fruita Monument has figured how to score when it needs to. The Wildcats aren’t lighting up the scoreboard, but have been able to sustain drives to win games.
One of the keys to the Wildcats’ offensive success is the play of H-back Martin Zupan. The bubble screen has been Fruita’s go-to play, and Zupan has averaged 122 yards receiving the past three games, mostly with the quick passing game.
“The biggest thing is Daniels, Zupan and (quarterback Zach) Thorpe put pressure on defenses,” Owens said. “They are figuring out the timing because they’ve gotten better every week and they aren’t the same team against Loveland that played zero week against Broomfield.”
Last week against Loveland, Thorpe threw for 222 yards, including a 41-yard go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter to Daniels.
“Being it’s Junction, it’s going to be a higher intensity,” Thorpe said. “It’s going to be a very physical game, but we have to keep playing like we have been.”