‘Cats play well down the stretch
Even after opening the season with two losses and going 1-3, the playoffs were always the goal for Fruita Monument.
Head coach Todd Casebier had a hunch the team would come around.
Like all good football teams, the Wildcats knew they had to get better on defense. And that’s what they did.
The key to good defense is being physical. And that’s one of the big difference between the early season Wildcats and the playoff Wildcats.
“We’re playing better on defense,” Casebier said. “As a team we’ve played more physical but defense has really been the story.”
On Saturday, that defense will face another tough test when No. 2 Chatfield (10-1) comes to Stocker Stadium to play the Wildcats in the Class 4A playoff quarterfinals.
Fruita Monument (7-4), the 10th seed, regrouped after a 40-14 loss to a tough Palisade team back on Sept. 16. The Wildcats have now won six of their last seven.
It started with what Casebier called the “turnaround game,” a 44-28 win over Central, the next week, the Wildcats played No. 1 Denver South (11-0) tough on the road, losing 49-42.
Fruita scored at least 40 points its final seven regular-season games before beating Monarch 36-28 to open the playoffs last week.
Casebier said it’s been a steady progression of improvement.
“We’ve gotten better all year and our special teams have been outstanding. Offensively, we’ve been pretty consistent considering we lost our quarterback,” he said.
Sophomore Zach Rush returned three weeks ago after sustaining a leg injury early in the season.
“He’s one of our best football players and every game he gets a little more comfortable,” Casebier said. “He’s just another really good athlete we have.”
As far as that defense coming around, the coach gave credit to the seniors and captains as well as moving some players into different positions. But the main reason for the improvement comes down to work on the practice field.
“Our kids have always responded to coaching here. We’re here because we keep working everyday. This is the best practice group I’ve been around as a head coach, and we use it as focus time and our kids have used (practice) to get better,” he said.
Junior Zakil Nkana, a 250-pound junior offensive and defensive lineman, agrees.
“We are all about getting better in practice, you have to get better there,” he said. “Our defense really has to step up this week and it all starts with practice.”
Nkana said the defense just needed a little time to come together.
“We had to work on our defense and work on knowing what is good for us. Our defense has to hold us in there if we want to keep on winning,” he said.
Facing a powerful Chatfield team that has scored at least 49 points in eight games this season will be a big task for the Wildcats on Saturday.
Last week, the Chargers beat Central in the first round, 58-14, after the Warriors were in the game in the first half.
“We’re definitely going to need our defense to step up,” Nkana said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do to win, we’re going to have to win at the line of scrimmage.”
There’s no secret formula on what it takes to keep winning in the playoffs.
“We have to continue playing well in all three phases and we needed all three phases last week to win,” Casebier said. “Our defense is going to have to get some stops or turnovers, and our offense is going to have to control the ball and do the things we’ve been doing. There’s not a better place to do that than at home. Our kids are excited and hopefully we’ll have a great crowd.”
It will be the first home playoff game for the Wildcats since 2003.
Chatfield relies on the run and that run game revolves around 1,000-yard rusher Dalton Keene. The bruising senior is a handful at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. The Chargers have another 200-plus pound running back in Ben Frenette, who has 533 yards rushing.
The Wildcats are also about the run, averaging 338 yards a game, and that’s been the key to its high-scoring offense over the past seven games.
They have two 1,000-yard rushers in Logan Triplett (1,289) and junior Braeden Graham (1,475). They both have 18 TDs on the season.
Nkana said it’s been a fantastic season to this point.
“It’s a great experience for all of us. We’re always talking about brotherhood and how we want to win for each other, not for ourselves. We know this is a team sport and the brotherhood really helps us,” he said.