Making their mark
A look at how graduates of Western Slope high schools have fared in their college sports
In its penultimate game last season, the University of Northern Colorado football team was driving against the University of Montana, a longtime Football Championship Subdivision power. The Bears were trailing 25-21 with less than four minutes remaining and had worked the ball to their opponents’ 5-yard line.
Quarterback Kyle Sloter took the snap under center and shuffled backward after the play-action, trying to buy more time. As he was doubled over by a Grizzlies linebacker, Sloter still got off the throw that floated toward the end zone.
Tight end Theron Verna, a graduate of Grand Junction High School, pulled in the game-winning touchdown.
The Bears won 28-25 and cemented a turnaround season for the state’s single FCS competitor. The touchdown was one of three Verna caught in the final three games of the season for the Bears.
“I think as an offense we really grew from the beginning of the year toward the end,” Verna said. “For me, I had an ankle injury early on. I played the first couple weeks, then I rolled an ankle and was out for a week-and-a-half, but I was lucky enough to work with our strength coach and bounce back really quick. We have all these playmakers out there — (Hakeem) Deggs, (Alex) Wesley, everybody — that we really hit our stride toward the end.
“(The Montana game) was a big turning point for us as a sophomore class. That was huge, because we’ve always had potential. We upset Portland the year before and with Montana, nobody expected us to do it, really, but it was a real team moment. We all went out to dinner afterwards and it helped us bond.”
Verna’s role grew and changed since he arrived in Greeley. He went from being an H-back, “move” tight end, to being more of a three-point blocking tight end.
But during his sophomore year, the Bears opened up the offense centered around a group of young athletes. The changes put Verna back into a more athletic role, something he was very familiar with playing in Robbie Owens’ high-powered offense at Grand Junction High School.
“My dad was an All-American guard,” Verna said. “I wasn’t on the line a lot in high school or early on, but I took a lot of what he knew and tried to apply it. I tried to work on my three-point stance and I’ve always known how important blocking is. But then (the coaches) started seeing how athletic this group is and started stretching us out, and that had huge benefits for us as an offense.”
His time with the Tigers helped prepare him for UNC’s move to an up-tempo offense.
“The biggest thing about it was that it taught you to play exhausted,” Verna said. “The no-huddle offense, running plays really quickly and you were always moving and thinking. When I was redshirted, we were running a pro-style offense, so everything was really slowed down, even though the playbook was complicated. Sophomore year everything started to pick up and it was a lot more what I was used to. (Offensive coordinator) Jon Boyer is really big into using all the tools he has, so we’ve been good with the adjustments.”
Two other locals were on the Bears’ roster last season.
Marques Combs, formerly a four-sport standout for Palisade, was UNC’s kickoff specialist, with 24 touchbacks on 62 kickoffs. He also made a 41-yard field goal filling in as the placekicker.
Quinton Walton, a former Grand Junction offensive lineman, transferred to UNC from CSU-Pueblo. After sitting out the 2016 season, he’s battling for a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line this year.
Several more football players have made their impact in the RMAC.
Quincy Campbell, a former Palisade athlete, appeared in all 11 games for Western State as a linebacker and tallied 42 tackles, fifth on the team. He also had two sacks and a tackle for loss. With the graduation of twin linebackers Carter and Cade Wasser, both of Cedaredge, Campbell figures to play an even bigger role in his sophomore year.
Zach Griggs, a former Fruita Monument football player, had two catches for the run-heavy Mountaineers.
Grand Junction athlete Jack Parsons used a second redshirt year at Fort Lewis during the 2016 season and Central’s Tonka Little-Fawn is coming off a redshirt season during his first year in Durango.
Fruita’s Jake Basinger saw limited action for Black Hills State (South Dakota), catching four passes for 38 yards one year after transferring from Trinidad State Junior College. Jake Phelan, former Meeker quarterback, appeared in eight games for the Yellow Jackets as a defensive back and had 14 tackles.
Cuba Bess had a productive freshman year for Grand Canyon University. He made a splash for the Lopes in his first collegiate at-bat against Oklahoma State, knocking in a run on his ninth-inning single.
From there, the former Fruita Monument standout was a regular contributor, appearing in 35 games with 15 starts. He hit .253 in 79 at-bats with three doubles and seven RBI.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot,” Bess said. “Not only as a ballplayer, but as a man as well. It definitely grew me up a bit more. The mentality that you needed to grind every day was a challenge and not a single day was like high school. I feel like I contributed more as a pinch hitter and a guy that we needed off the bench.
“I did good at the beginning of the season, then kind of went downhill. It’s just like being a freshman in high school as one in college. You learn new things, you pick up what the older guys are displaying and you follow. It was a lot of fun.”
Grand Junction’s Owen Taylor was a key part of a late-season surge for the University of Kansas. The Jayhawks won eight straight early in May and finished 30-28.
The first baseman started 35 games and appeared in 56, hitting .291 — second among regular starters — with seven doubles.
Several other players made their impacts at lower levels.
Former Fruita outfielder Sam Graf hit .323 with three home runs for Middlebury College (Vermont). His former teammate, Sam Schroeder, pitched and hit for Central Arizona College. He hit .265 with three triples and three home runs in 102 at-bats. He appeared five times on the mound, totaling four innings pitched and struck out seven batters with five walks.
Central’s Tanner Huskey hit .226 in 21 games for Cabrillo College (California) and Grand Junction’s Tyler Mantlo tossed three innings for Lamar Community College.
Former Grand Junction basketball star Broderick Robinson appeared in all 35 games as the sixth man for University of Missouri-Kansas City. He averaged 4.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.1 steals and 22.7 minutes per game for the Roos, who reached the second round of the College Basketball Invitational before falling to eventual champion Wyoming.
Grand Valley’s John Parker saw plenty of time at Colorado Northwestern Community College, averaging 23.3 minutes per game in his freshman season. He averaged 9.5 points per game, fourth on the team and averaged two-and-a-half 3-pointers per game.
Grand Junction guard Jake Wilcox was redshirted during his first year at Western State.
Former Fruita Monument golfer Troy Dangler played 15 rounds for the University of Denver, shooting a low round of 72 at the Bandon Dunes Championship in Oregon. His average round was 77.
Jacob Seely, who posted a 124-22 record at Fruita Monument High School, was a regular contributor for Northern Colorado after spending one season competing unattached. He finished the season 7-3 and 1-0 in duals before a season-ending injury in November. His teammate, Paonia’s Jesse Reed, redshirted during his second year after competing as a true freshman.
Paonia’s Bo Pipher competed at 141 and 149 pounds for Penn State, posting a 5-4 record. The Nittany Lions finished 14-0 en route to their sixth NCAA Division I national championship in seven years.
Montrose swimmer Lars Knutson was part of two school-record-breaking relay teams for the Air Force Academy during his junior year. He was among the six fastest swimmers in various freestyle events and swam the 100 yard butterfly in 56.02 seconds.