Classical Academy coach calls No. 2 seed Palisade ‘best team in the state’
As much as Palisade dismisses rankings and seedings, especially come the postseason, the Bulldogs face a second-round playoff opponent Friday who knows where Palisade stands.
David Bervig, second-year coach of The Classical Academy, said he thought it was ridiculous when Palisade (10-1) wasn’t ranked No. 1 in Class 3A at the end of the season and wasn’t seeded No. 1 when the playoff field was set. Bervig said the second-seeded Bulldogs are 3A’s top team, and taking down the best will be the Titans’ challenge at 7 p.m. Friday at Stocker Stadium.
“We’re going in thinking we’re playing the best team in the state,” said Bervig, whose seventh-seeded squad defeated No. 10 Conifer 14-12 in the first round.
For that matter, forget the seedings, Bervig said. He’s aware of Palisade’s history, the four state championships the Bulldogs won during coach Joe Ramunno’s first stint as Palisade’s coach and the annual playoff berths it has been earning for two decades.
“Palisade year after year after year after year after year is a great football program,” Bervig said. “They’re well-coached, and we’re expecting a tough, hard-nosed football game.”
Ramunno can’t keep his players from reading the praise, but he’ll make sure they’re prepared for a team he holds in high regard, too. Plus, the Bulldogs are at the playoff stage, the quarterfinals, where he believes every team remaining is capable of winning the state title. It’s now a matter of health and getting a few breaks in determining who will be the state champion, Ramunno said.
In The Classical Academy, Ramunno sees a team that can throw the ball extremely well, and that has been an area where Palisade’s defense has struggled.
“They’re very, very good at throwing the football,” Ramunno said. “Their quarterback throws a great ball and is a very good leader.”
The Titans’ QB is Jantzen Ryals, who missed out on the playoffs last season because of a broken collarbone, and The Classical Academy bowed out in the first round against Delta.
He’s a senior now and despite a change this year from a spread offense to a less-pass-happy offense, Ryals has thrown for more than 1,500 yards and tossed 13 touchdown passes.
The Titans have surpassed 2,000 yards on the ground, but no rusher has more than the 683 yards registered by senior Anthony Register, who missed a game-and-a-half with an injury.
“I don’t care what the stats say, that kid is special,” Bervig said.
Register does most of his damage between the tackles, and complementing him with speed to the outside is Peter Troupe, who has rushed for 433 yards and caught 17 passes for 312 yards.
“He’s extremely fast,” Bervig said of Troupe. “He has very good vision and can get to the edge.”
Ramunno said one of the Bulldogs’ challenges on defense will be accounting for the wide variety of Classical weapons. There is no running back to key on, and Ryals distributes his passes among six different receivers with nine or more catches, and four players have 16 or more catches.
One receiver who caught Ramunno’s eye is tight end Dakota Yourkowski, a 6-foot, 190-pound junior who has 19 catches for a team-high 322 yards.
“No. 15 (Yourkowski) is a great kid,” Ramunno said. “He does good stuff on both sides of the ball.”
Bervig said the difficulty in defensing Palisade is the relentless excellence of execution by the Bulldogs. He spoke highly of Palisade quarterback Levi Hoaglund and running back Dalton Hannigan, but much more than the two, 1,000-yard rushers impresses him.
“What stands out is the entire offensive unit,” Bervig said. “It’s 11 guys working as a unit. They execute better than any team I’ve seen.
“And if you commit all of your resources to stop the run, they’ll get you with the pass.”
Likewise, Ramunno said The Classical Academy executes on both sides of the ball and does it with energy and emotion, which the Bulldogs will need to match.
“They’re very well-coached in all phases,” Ramunno said. “Everything they do, they do with a purpose.”
Hoping to be healthy
Hannigan played briefly on defense in Palisade’s first-round playoff win over Lutheran, but he didn’t play at all on offense because of an ankle injury.
Ramunno said Hannigan will be limited in practice this week but will be ready to play on both sides of the ball against The Classical Academy.
“Dalton’s a big part of everything we’re doing,” Ramunno said. “We’ll have to choose our moments a little bit (for playing him on offense). He’ll be in there. We have to watch it and make sure he can do all of the things.”
Senior running back Austin Terry filled in admirably for Hannigan on offense against Lutheran, rushing for 110 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. He also caught a pass for 39 yards.
“We were fortunate Austin Terry was able to fill in and play so well,” Ramunno said. “We had some guys like Austin Terry, Cody Latham, come in and come up with some big plays. Kurtis Grady came in and played really well at corner.”
The Bulldogs overall are in good health, Ramunno said, and that includes Hoaglund, who left the Lutheran game for one series with a leg injury, then returned to lead Palisade’s comeback from a 13-0 deficit.
Thunder in their feet
Each team has a standout kicker: Kyle Jacobs for the Titans and Marques Combs for the Bulldogs.
Jacobs succeeded Daniel Carlson, who now is kicking for the University of Auburn and was ranked among the top 10 kickers by several recruiting services a year ago.
Bervig said Jacobs is the No. 25 kicker in the nation on one list this fall, and the senior has converted 33 of 34 point-after kicks this season and made six field goals, including a 48-yarder. On 60 kickoffs, he has 47 touchbacks.
Palisade counters with Combs, a junior who has 25 touchbacks on 65 kickoffs and has converted 50 of 55 extra-point kicks. Combs has made three field goals, including a long of 35 yards.
Jacobs doubles as the Titans’ punter and is averaging 39.4 yards on 29 punts.
Hoaglund handles the punting duties for Palisade and is averaging 42.7 yards on 12 punts.
Valuable addition to staff
The Titans’ switch in offense was to a jet offense, and much of what they do starts with jet sweeps, Bervig said. Helping Ryals make the adjustment was quarterback coach Chance Harridge, who started at quarterback for the Air Force Academy in 2002 and 2003.
He’s done a great job with Jantzen,” Bervig said, adding Ryals took several games to adjust and has turned in some of his best games recently.
Bervig added Harridge has been of great assistance in preparing for Palisade because he played in a flexbone offense at Air Force, and Palisade runs the flexbone.
Harridge, by the way, rushed for 1,229 yards and 22 touchdowns and threw for 1,062 yards and 10 TDs as a junior at Air Force. As a senior, he ran for 914 yards and 12 scores and threw for 995 yards and six TDs.
Get the scale out
Bervig and Ramunno will have to agree to disagree about which team has the size advantage.
“I don’t think we’re physically as big as Palisade,” Bervig said.
Meanwhile, Ramunno said Classical has decent size, “and when I say decent size, I mean they’re a lot bigger than we are.”
To that, Bervig said, “He’s crazy. There’s some big kids playing for Palisade.”
On the rosters, the Titans list 12 kids who weigh 200 pounds or more, and Palisade has 10.
No stranger to Western Slope
Bervig said the game at Stocker Stadium is a bit of a homecoming for him. He was born in Grand Junction and lived here until he was about 5 years old, then his family moved to Alamosa, he said.