Offense in focus

Heinsma the key player for Tigers on 5A state playoff game

Tyler Heinsma is a dual-threat quarterback for the Grand Junction Tigers, who enter the playoffs with one of the top offenses in Class 5A. Heinsma has passed for 1,604 yards and run for another 778 as the Tigers prepare for Westminster on Friday.

Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens, below, wants Grand Junction to be known as one of the best teams in the state. Advancing deep into the playoffs will make achieving that goal more realistic.

Theron Verna is a key component of the Tigers’ offense, whether it is running the football or catching passes. Verna has 220 yards rushing, averaging 8.8 yards per carry, and leads the team with 29 receptions for 540 yards and six touchdowns.

The return of John Wiman from injury has bolstered the Grand Junction defense. The Tigers will try to keep Westminster running back Ryan Belearde from breaking loose Friday in a Class 5A playoff game.


Class 5A Football Playoffs

No. 23 Westminster (5-3) vs. No. 10 Grand Junction (7-2)

First round, 7 p.m. Friday at Stocker Stadium


Westminster — Kerry Denison, fourth season, 20-18.

Grand Junction — Robbie Owens, sixth season, 40-23.

About Westminster

■ The Wolves went 4-1 in the 5A East Metro Conference, finishing second to Prairie View, a team Grand Junction beat 61-42 in the season opener. Prairie View beat Westminster 41-22.

■ The teams have one other common opponent, Mountain Vista. Grand Junction beat the Golden Eagles 49-13, but Westminster lost 35-20 to Mountain Vista.

■ The Wolves have scored 232 points and allowed 170 points. They surrendered the fewest points in East Metro play: 78 in five games.

■ Westminster is a run-first team with 347 rushes vs. 77 passes through eight games.

■ Senior running back Ryan Belearde leads the rushing attack with 1,409 yards, averaging 9.2 yards per carry, and he has scored 19 touchdowns on the ground. Belearde also is second on the team with 11 catches for 200 yards and one touchdown.

■ Junior Nick Etchells and sophomore Brandon Dickerson ran for 457 and 358 yards, respectively. Etchells averaged 6.6 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns.

■ Junior quarterback Jake Walklett completed 35 of 75 passes for 624 yards and four touchdowns. He was intercepted twice. He is not a running threat, carrying the ball only four times for minus-7 yards. The only other pass attempts were by Belearde, and he completed both for touchdowns, a 53-yarder and a 35-yarder. The Wolves’ completions go for an average of 19.2 yards.

■ Sophomore Brian Hogan is the No. 1 receiver with 12 catches for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Jordan Tafoya has eight catches for 163 yards and two TDs.

■ Belearde is Westminster’s leading tackler with 65 tackles, including a team-high 13 solo stops, from his strong safety position. He also has two of the team’s six interceptions.

■ Junior Fernando Hernandez has 42 tackles, and Tafoya has 36 tackles. Tafoya and Etchells have four sacks apiece, and Etchells had three sacks.

■ Walklett is the team’s punter and had to punt only 18 times, averaging 32.8 yards per punt.

About Grand Junction

■ Grand Junction will be the Southwestern Conference champion if Montrose (8-1) beats winless Central tonight. The Tigers hold the tiebreaker over Montrose and Durango.

■ The Tigers’ two losses were 66-45 to Ralston Valley and 34-33 in overtime to Durango.

■ The Tigers boast a balanced, explosive offense that averages 43.6 points and 463.2 yards per game.

■ Grand Junction runs for 280 yards per game, led by senior running back Austin Lewis, who verbally committed to Drake University. The Tigers have limited his usage in recent games because of an ankle injury that kept Lewis out of the Oct. 4 Durango game. Lewis still has carried the ball 156 times for 1,189 yards, 7.6 yards per carry, and 15 touchdowns. He also has 10 catches for 150 yards and a TD.

■ Senior quarterback Tyler Heinsma is second on the team with 778 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. He averages 6.8 yards per carry. Through the air he has 1,604 yards, completing 94 of 153 passes, 61 percent, with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions.

■ Senior Theron Verna, who lines up in various skill positions, has 220 yards rushing, averaging 8.8 yards per carry, and he leads the team with 29 receptions for 540 yards and six touchdowns.

■ Senior running back Dion Martinez also is a rushing and receiving threat, running for 219 yards (4.3 yards per game) and four scores and catching seven passes for 130 yards and two TDs.

■ Senior wide receiver Kaleb Johnson is second on the team with 22 catches for 298 yards and two TDs, and junior wide receiver Jack Parsons follows with 16 catches, good for 407 yards and three touchdowns.

■ Senior linebackers Robbie Gonzalez and Tanner Griffin lead the Tigers with 82 and 70 tackles, respectively. Both have made 40 solos stops, and Griffin has four sacks. Junior linebacker James Antonucci is next with 53 tackles. Verna, as an outside linebacker and defensive end, has 49 tackles and four sacks. Griffin and Verna each had 12 tackles for losses.

■ Antonucci and Parsons lead Grand Junction with two interceptions apiece, and the team has nine overall.

■ Griffin has recovered six fumbles and leads the team with three forced fumbles.

■ Griffin handles the punting duties, averaging 30.3 yards on 13 punts.

■ Senior kicker Alex Steiner has converted 38 of 41 point-after kicks and made a 37-yard field goal during the season.

■ The Tigers have a large offensive and defensive lines, anchored by Quinton Walton, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound tackle on both sides of the ball. He is drawing recruiting interest from NCAA Division I and II colleges.

Grand Junction will look to limit the room mighty mite Westminster running back Ryan Belearde has to run.

Meanwhile, Westminster will try to contain the conductor of Grand Junction’s explosive, pick-your-poison offense: quarterback Tyler Heinsma.

In other words, both defenses have their work cut out for them in Friday’s first-round Class 5A football playoff between Grand Junction and Westminster at 7 p.m. at Stocker Stadium. The defense that does the best job figures to be the one that advances to the second round.

The Wolves (5-3) have won three games in a row after a stretch in which they lost three of four games. They have scored at least 40 points in each of those wins, and their defense pitched shutouts in two of the games, as Westminster outscored its opponents 126-14.

Westminster coach Kerry Denison said the defense’s emergence was a matter of finally figuring out where to play people on defense. For example, linebacker Sebastian Garcia was a backup until he was inserted into the lineup three games ago. He has led the team in tackles since then.

Grand Junction’s offense is one of the best in the state, ranking third in 5A for total yards, 463.2 per game, and averaging 43.6 points per game.

The Tigers’ abundance of skill on offense is evident on film, said Denison, who has guided the Wolves to the postseason in each of his four seasons after a 19-year playoff drought at the school.

Despite all of Grand Junction’s weapons, Denison said the one who concerns him the most is Heinsma, a senior who piles up yards with his arm (1,604 yards passing) and legs (778 yards rushing).

“I really like the quarterback. He’s the big leader of the group,” said Denison, whose base defense is a 5-2. “We have to contain him.

“For us to hang with them, we have to defensively contain them. It all comes down to defense. If you can keep them off the board, that’s the only chance we’re going to have to win.”

Conversely, Grand Junction’s defense has the challenge of slowing down Belearde, a little guy who puts up big numbers. Belearde, who is about 5-foot-8, 145 pounds, ranks fourth in 5A for rushing, racking up 1,409 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens said Westminster’s wing-T offense is centered on Belearde, getting him in open space to use his speed. Denison said that’s the case, adding the senior does a lot on his own, too, because he’s quick and cuts on a dime.

“He’s fast,” Owens said of Belearde. “If he can bounce the ball to the edge, he’ll outrun you to the perimeter.”

In general, Owens added, the Wolves are a run-first team, and they throw sparingly, but when they do, they’re looking to hit the big play. The statistics say as much. Junior quarterback Jake Walklett has completed 35 of 75 passes for 624 yards. Add in Belearde’s two completions, both for touchdowns, in two attempts for 88 yards, and Westminster averages 19.2 yards per completion.

Grand Junction’s leading tackler, senior inside linebacker Robbie Gonzalez, said the Tigers have played better since a 66-45 loss to Ralston Valley on
Sept. 14. Like Denison did with the Wolves, Gonzalez said Owens moved some players around, getting them in the right spots, and Gonzalez believes the Tigers’ focus has improved.

About Westminster specifically, he added, “We just have to prepare mentally to be ready for the speed they have.”

Grand Junction senior lineman Quinton Walton, a tackle on both sides of the ball, said the Tigers have seen offenses similar to Westminster’s, and it helps.

“We know their offense fairly well, their tendencies,” Walton said. “We’ve progressively gotten better against that kind offense.”

Consistency and confidence

Owens said he thinks Grand Junction’s defense is improving, but it’s still seeking consistency and trying to find its identity.

He’d like to see his defense develop the swagger he sees in the Tigers’ offense.

“Our offense, they know they’re going to score,” Owens said. “Defensively, we don’t have that swagger. We’re tying to get it.”

Postseason proving ground

Owens makes no bones about Grand Junction’s goal to be recognized as one of the elite 5A programs in the state. That means making deep runs into the postseason.

Owens said the mentality he wants from his players, the culture he wants permeating through the program, is the belief that Grand Junction can play with anyone in the state.

“Our goal every year is to play for the state championship,” he said. “We feel like if we play our best, we can play with anyone in Colorado.”

Walton said the Tigers want to start the postseason off strong.

“We really want to make a name for ourselves,” he said. “We always want to be better than the previous year’s team. We want to keep building this program up.”

Giving them their due

The Tigers don’t need to prove anything to Denison. He already holds the program in high regard.

“I know how good Grand Junction is,” Denison said. “Robbie (Owens) does an excellent job. He’s one of the best around.”

Also seeking elite status

Denison wants to build his program into an elite one, too, and he appears headed in the right direction. He said Westminster was “something like 1-29, 1-30” in the years before he arrived. Their records under Denison were 4-6 in 2010, 6-4 in 2011 and 5-5 last year. Each team reached the playoffs but lost in the first round.

Denison started the turnaround by installing the wing-T offense, which doesn’t require huge linemen to block in the scheme, and he wanted to be able to manage the clock with the ground game.

Denison also said success has stemmed from having a great coaching staff.

“We had to basically teach them how to win,” Denison said of the players. “And once they started doing that, now they understand it.”

Healthy at the right time

Grand Junction senior running back Austin Lewis is ranked seventh in 5A with 1,189 yards rushing despite having his playing time limited since missing the Durango game with an ankle injury.

Owens said Lewis will be good to go Friday, and the Tigers are “as healthy as we’ve been all year.”

The recent return of senior defensive back John Wiman is a big one, too, Owens said. Wiman intercepted a pass last week in Grand Junction’s 49-7 win over Central.


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