BULLDOGS BUILDING ON THE LEGACY
Losing several impact players to graduation doesn’t worry the players on Palisade High School’s football team.
“I really don’t think it’s a concern. More like a new beginning,” senior running back and safety Austin Bernal said. “It gives us a chance to see where we’re at as a program, and I’m excited to change up our whole group, carry on a new identity as a team and, hopefully, continue the team’s legacy with different guys.”
It’s quite a legacy the Bulldogs have built over the past three-plus decades. It includes five state championships, annual playoff berths, including four consecutive appearances in the Class 3A quarterfinals.
Palisade is ranked seventh in the CHSAAnow.com Class 3A preseason poll and again will be considered a favorite for the Western Slope Conference title. The Bulldogs lost 20 of the 55 players on last year’s roster to graduation, leaving longtime coach Joe Ramunno tasked with replacing more than one-third of last year’s team.
This season’s seniors are more than willing to help some of those younger players along.
“Now we’re all kind of expected to be leaders all the time,” senior defensive end and fullback Terrance Williams said. “We want to make sure everyone knows what we’ve done in the past. There’s never a case of giving anyone a pass because they’re new. It’s about picking up the slack so we can keep going.”
Seven starters from last season’s team are back, and they’ll be asked to make up for the productivity Palisade lost after last season’s quarterfinal-round loss at Mead. Among those players who graduated were quarterback P.D. Riddle, who finished with more than 1,000 passing and rushing yards, and Isaac Maestas, the Bulldogs’ do-everything player as a running back, linebacker and place kicker.
Palisade had plenty of depth in 2016, and the Bulldogs averaged 337.6 yards rushing per game, which led Class 3A. Riddle was the only player who exceeded 1,000 rushing yards, but eight different players finished with at least 100 yards rushing.
That depth and consistency year after year is something Ramunno hopes continues this season.
“Replacing players is just part of the game,” said Ramunno, who coached Palisade to four consecutive state championships in the 1990s. “When you lose guys, you’ve got to find guys to replace them. We’re hoping these younger guys will take off after learning from some of the other guys who have been here. You always hope that’s what they get out of the whole thing.”
Bernal, who Ramunno called “our McCaffrey” in reference to former Valor Christian standout and current Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, is one of those guys. His 841 rushing yards on 91 carries with 12 touchdowns are tops among returners, and his 22 catches for 456 yards and seven touchdowns were team highs.
Taking over for Riddle at quarterback is his younger brother, Christian, who made an impromptu start against Montrose last September, helping lead Palisade to a 15-13 victory. Also taking snaps is Cam Tucker, a sophomore who Ramunno said will play more of a utility back role. Jason Bruce, a junior, will also see time in the backfield.
Seniors Danny Tate and Wyatt Brinkley will anchor an offensive line that will be smaller, but should be much quicker, than in years past.
“We’re fortunate enough that we can get away with having smaller linemen in this system,” Williams said.
Williams also will see lots of time in the backfield despite finishing with only five carries last season, but his 71 tackles in 2016 helped anchor the Bulldogs’ defense. Tate, whose five sacks in 2016 were a team high, returns at defensive end, and Brinkley will play linebacker.
The Bulldogs’ defense hit its stride as the season progressed. It allowed single-digit scoring in four of its final five regular-season games and helped Palisade get back to the state quarterfinals with a 44-3 first-round victory.
This season, the Bulldogs hope they can move into the 3A semifinals for the first time since 2011.
“We can’t control what’s happened in the past, so we just have to move forward,” Bernal said.
“And these younger guys, they want to learn. There’s a desire and there’s motivation. That’s why I think we can go further this year.”