Getting defensive: Tigers’ success on defense fuels turnaround

Key trio: Tyler Winder, left, Jerreon Dennis, center, and Casey Walker, all are playing an important part in the defensive renaissance for the Grand Junction High School football team. All three players are stalwarts at their positions.


Grand Junction vs. Central

Friday, 7 p.m., Stocker Stadium

RADIO: 1340-AM (KTMM); 95.1-FM (KKNN)

RECORDS: Grand Junction 4-1, 0-0 Southwestern Conference; Central 1-4, 0-1, SWC

LAST WEEK: Grand Junction beat Fountain-Fort Carson 21-20; Central lost to Fruita Monument 19-14.

GAME NOTES: Central has to avoid turnovers. The Warriors have committed 23 turnovers in five games, and haven’t had fewer than four in each game.

“It’s been big as far as momentum goes,” Central coach Vern McGee said. “We’ve put our defense in a tough place, and it’s something we have to take care of.”

Central recognizes how well Grand Junction has been playing lately, and McGee said it’s not going to be an easy game.

The Tigers have won four straight.

“We’ll get their best game and they are playing well,” McGee said. “They have a good team and any time you play them, it’s tough.”

The Warriors will need another big game from running back Aaron Wallway, who’s had more than 100 yards rushing the past two games.

The Tigers are led by junior running back Jerreon Dennis, who’s averaging 167 yards per game and has seven rushing touchdowns this season.

Fruita Monument at Durango

Friday, 7 p.m., Durango

RADIO: none

RECORDS: Fruita Monument 0-4, 0-0 SWC; Durango 3-2, 0-0 SWC

LAST WEEK: Fruita Monument defeated Central 19-14; Durango defeated Doherty 17-0.

GAME NOTES: The Wildcats overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to earn their first victory of the season last week. Vince Grasso led Fruita with 141 rushing yards. Quarterback Zach Thorpe threw for 127 yards. Martin Zupan had seven catches for 117 yards.

“I think we did some good things, but we left some points on the field,” Fruita coach Shawn Marsh said. “I’m pleased with the way we were able to run the football. We need to be more solid on special teams.

“The kids continue to practice hard. They understand where we are at and that we’ve had a tough preseason schedule, but it’s all null and void if we don’t apply what we’ve learned during the week. I’m proud how they responded when Central drove own and scored in the fourth quarter.”

Durango has won its past three games, including a 17-0 victory last week. The Demons are led by quarterback Joe Keresey. The junior is averaging close to 200 yards passing per game and has completed 56 percent of his pass attempts. He threw for 396 yards in a loss against Aztec, N.M., earlier this season.

“Durango throws the ball well,” Marsh said. “They run multiple formations with lots of different looks. Their scheme allows us to do things we want to do.”

Fruita linebacker Devon Dance is out with a rib injury, Marsh said, but is expected to return later this season.

Battle Mountain at Palisade

Saturday, 11 a.m., Palisade High School

RADIO: none

RECORDS: Battle Mountain 1-4, 0-2 Western Slope Conference; Palisade 4-1, 1-1 WSC

LAST WEEK: Palisade defeated Moffat County 36-6; Battle Mountain lost 21-35 to Glenwood Springs.

GAME NOTES: Palisade is going all-out to celebrate homecoming, hosting Battle Mountain at the high school instead of Stocker Stadium. It is the first varsity game played at the school since 1997, when the Bulldogs played Sheridan in the state playoffs. Palisade played all its home games at the school from 1992 to 1994 and occasionally through 1997.

“It’s been 16 years since had a homecoming game here,” Palisade assistant coach Matt Borgmann said. “We want to involve the Palisade community and go back to some old traditions. We love Stocker Stadium, but at the same time, it’s not really yours. This is our home field and home turf, this is where the kids play every day.”

The Bulldogs re-established their identity last weekend in their victory over Moffat County and are setting out to play their style of football against Battle Mountain.

“After the loss to Glenwood, we challenged them and they rose up to that challenge. We played our type of football; physical, ran the ball well. That’s Palisade football. We got after them, and by the end, we tired them out.”

The Huskies, though, are a more dangerous team than in years past. Battle Mountain took an early 13-6 lead against Rifle before the Bears rallied to win.

“At the beginning of the season, Coach (John) Arledge and I talked about the teams to watch out for and Battle Mountain was one of them. They have a lot of team speed. They like to spread open the offense and make you defend the entire field. That can be problem to defend.

“They are a more physical team than they’ve been. They scored first against Classical Academy and were up on Rifle. If you can’t catch up, it’s game over for you.”

Other Games to Watch

Eagle Valley at Delta, 7 p.m. Friday: Both teams need a win to keep pace in the Western Slope Conference and in the Class 3A state playoff hunt.

Cedaredge at Coal Ridge, 7 p.m. Friday: Both programs are building and can take a step closer to playoff contention with a victory.

Paonia at Meeker, 7 p.m. Friday: Paonia looks to rebound after a loss; Meeker tries to keep up with Class 1A Western Slope Conference frontrunner Hotchkiss.

Grand Junction High School defensive coordinator Brandon Harrison doesn’t hide his aspirations for his side of the football.

“I want to be an absolutely dominant defense on our way to winning a state title,” Harrison said. “I don’t care if we are a small (Class) 5A school or whatever, the bottom line is we have the tools to do it and my goal is to show these kids just how tough they are.”

Harrison is in his second year in charge of a Tigers defense that has allowed 8.6 points per game on the way to a 4-1 record.

Harrison transformed a defense that gave up an average of 26 (2009) and 28 (2008) points per game its first two years in 5A into an immovable force.

The Tigers proved their defensive worth last week by knocking off No. 10 ranked Fountain-Fort Carson 21-20 on the road.

“Coach Harrison has put in so much time with these kids that they started buying into the offseason program,” Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens said. “You could see a different mentality just this summer going against them, and we could tell we’d be pretty good on that side.”

Grand Junction is running a 3-4 base scheme that requires a couple of key players in important positions to be successful.

It begins with the three down linemen who can pressure the quarterback, but also must be solid against the run.

The Tigers are led up front by 6-foot-4, 220-pound defensive end Casey Walker.

Walker led 5A in sacks last season with 12 and has continued his stellar play this year with four sacks through the first five games.

“Coming off of last year where he led 5A in sacks, everyone knows who he is this year,” Owens said. “So with him, Cody Cottrell, James Diamanti, Austin Berk and Evan Duff, I don’t think there hasn’t been a game where we didn’t dominate up front.”

Owens said the defensive line has given opponents trouble in every game this season.

“I’ve had coaches that I respect tell me that the number one thing they notice is how our defensive line is getting off the ball,” Owens said. “That’s something that Coach Harrison has preached and it’s finally triggered with those guys how important that is.”

Behind the three linemen is a set of four linebackers. The inside linebackers are responsible for stuffing the inside running plays as well as dropping into coverage in the middle of the field.

The outside linebackers have multiple responsibilities, but tend to be the team’s best pass rushers off the edge.

Aaron Minnick is playing middle linebacker, along with Ryan Arnold and Danny Wehner. The Tigers’ two outside linebackers are juniors Jerreon Dennis and Gage Casey.

Dennis has been a defensive starter for the Tigers since his freshman year and leads the team with five sacks this season.

Dennis has turned in 15 solo tackles, four tackles for loss, and has forced two fumbles.

“Jerreon Dennis, in my opinion, has proved that he’s one of the top football players in the state,” Owens said. “In the 3-4, the outside linebackers have to be guys you bring pressure with, and against Fountain-Fort Carson he has two highlight-film sacks.

“He’s flown around and you notice him because he’s always around the football.”

The defensive secondary is made up of cornerbacks Tyler Winder and Chandon Rose and safeties Brandon Malloy and Blake Johnson. That group is making it a chore to pass against the Tigers.

In the Tigers’ five games, the opponents are averaging 85 yards per game through the air. Grand Junction has allowed only two touchdown passes so far.

“Our DBs are as good as it gets,” Owens said. “They are able to cover, they know the defense and they are smart.”

Walker said what makes the defense good isn’t its size or speed, but the players’ desire to make plays.

“It’s our mentality,” Walker said. “We aren’t the biggest team, but every guy looks for the ball and tries to get there as fast as they can.

“That was something that’s been installed on the practice field.”

Harrison said he preaches hustle, and knows it’s a way to even the playing field with any team in the state.

“The biggest thing I wanted to install was hustle,” Harrison said. “Hustle takes no talent.

“People play defense certain ways, but the way we are going to play it here is we are going to fly to the ball, and they’ve adapted to that well. This is the hardest working group I’ve ever had.”

Winder said the work ethic isn’t something the Tigers switch off and on. The three-year starting cornerback said it’s been a month-after-month process that’s still not complete.

“It started right after last season when we had people working in the weight room and continued with our summer commitment,” Winder said.

“Everyone was working hard because we knew we had an opportunity to do something special, and we feel like we can compete with any team out there.”


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