Offense in focus
Heinsma the key player for Tigers on 5A state playoff game
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.