On the ball
Tigers know swarming defense will be key against Rebels
Containing explosive Columbine High School running back Bernard McDondle will be priority No. 1 for the Grand Junction defense Friday night in their second-round Class 5A football playoff.
While most coaches would speak simply of playing swarming defense to stop a great running back, Grand Junction has enumerated what it means to swarm: 9-5-9.
Tigers linebacker Tanner Griffin explained: The Grand Junction defense wants to have “nine guys within five yards of the ball 90 percent of the time.”
Griffin added, “We can’t rely on just one of our guys. We need to all be around the ball.”
What Grand Junction (8-2) absolutely doesn’t want to see at Jefferson County Stadium is McDondle getting outside or into open space. The 5-foot-8, 175-pound senior is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and he gained a bunch of his 1,593 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns this season on long runs.
When McDondle isn’t racing for the perimeter, senior fullback Jeremy Aparicio (839 yards, 10 TDs) is pounding it into the middle for the Rebels (9-1). Junior quarterback Michael Tait doesn’t throw often, but when he does he’s effective, completing 65 percent of his 55 passes for 635 yards.
The Tigers saw first-hand what McDondle can do a year ago when Columbine defeated Grand Junction 37-20 in the first round of the 5A playoffs. He rushed for 204 of the Rebels’ 369 yards on the ground in a game in which Columbine attempted just one pass, which fell incomplete.
“He definitely was the difference in the game,” Tigers coach Robbie Owens said of McDondle. “Anyone who goes into a game with them goes in knowing they have to stop No. 2. He’s a speed guy. Once he gets to the edge, he’s pretty special. We haven’t seen anyone like him since we ran into him last year.”
The final score didn’t reflect how close the playoff game was. Grand Junction, despite committing four turnovers, pulled within 23-20 early in the fourth quarter, but the Rebels pulled away with two touchdowns, the final one from McDondle on a 31-yard run with about two minutes left in the game.
That loss to Columbine was a disappointing end to a disappointing season for Grand Junction, and Owens said redemption has been a driving his team since then. They knew they’d see teams this year that beat them last year, and the Tigers have been bent on making amends in the rematches.
“A lot of skill players, a lot of the seniors put in a lot of work in the offseason,” Grand Junction quarterback Tyler Heinsma said.
Heinsma said the Tigers didn’t have the playoff experience and maturity in the skill positions to take down Columbine. That has changed.
“We definitely matured as an offense over the past year,” he said.
Longtime Columbine coach Andy Lowry, who has guided the Rebels to five state titles in his 20 years, including the 2011 Class 5A championship, said the Tigers are a better team this year.
“Offensively, they’re as scary as any team we’ve faced,” Lowry said. “Their offensive line moves better. Their offensive tackles are just blowing people away.”
Owens characterizes the Rebels’ defense as “the ultimate team defense,” but Lowry readily admits, “Our whole league this year didn’t play any defense.”
Columbine needs to improve on that side of the ball, Lowry said. The Rebels have allowed at least two touchdowns in nine of their 10 games, and they’ve surrendered at least 21 points in five of their past six games, including games in which they allowed 49 and 43 points to Arapahoe and Chatfield, respectively. The Arapahoe game was Columbine’s one loss, 49-28, on Sept. 26.
With the way the Tigers spread the field on offense, Lowry said, “Guys are going to have to make one-on-one tackles. We’re going to have to play physical football.”
Beyond that, he said the Rebels will need to take care of the ball and mount long drives.
Stopping the latter, which Owens said is what Columbine’s offense is known for, will be one of the keys to victory for Grand Junction.
Owens said his team also enters the game confident. The Tigers believe they could have won last year’s game if they hadn’t committed so many turnovers.
“If we play as well as we know we’re capable of playing, we feel we can compete with anyone in the state,” Owens said.
Tough player to replace
Grand Junction will be without starting wide receiver and cornerback Jack Parsons for the rest of the season. Parsons, a junior, tore the ACL and meniscus in his left leg in the Tigers’ 32-8 victory over Westminster in their first-round playoff, Owens said.
“That’s just a big hit for us because Jack’s become a big-play guy for us,” Owens said.
Chance Mims filled in for Parsons against Westminster, and Owens said Griffin and starting safety John Wiman could join the mix at wide receiver. Griffin “has a lot of offensive skill,” Owens said, and Wiman was starting at tight end before he got injured. Wiman has focused on defense since his return to health.
“Coach came to me and asked if I would be able to help and be that guy (filling in for Parsons). I said, ‘I’m going to work as hard as I can to be that guy,’ ” Griffin said.
Constant scoring threat
Lowry described McDondle as a burner at running back and added, “He has incredibly quick feet. He steps in and out of the hole so quickly, and he can get back to full speed in a step. ... He can go yard on you anywhere, anytime.”
McDondle had received all-state recognition the past two seasons, and he showed what was to come from him at the end of his freshman year. Lowry said McDondle’s older brother, Cameron, was out with an injury, and McDondle stepped into a first-round playoff game and ran for 100 yards.
Didn’t take a back seat
McDondle wasn’t the only running back to have a huge game in last year’s Grand Junction-Columbine playoff. The Tigers’ Austin Lewis ran 26 times for 239 yards and caught a pass for 25 yards against the Rebels.
They know they have to score
Asked if Grand Junction’s offense is the kind in which no lead is safe, Lowry said yes and added, “It’s been like that almost every week this year.”
Long time among the elite
Owens said he has all of the respect in the world for Lowry and Columbine’s football program.
“Probably in the last 15 years, they’ve been the most consistent team in 5A,” Owens said. “They’re just a great program. They expect to be in these situations (playoff games), and expect to be in the final 16 every year.”
Lowry returned the compliment, saying Owens has done a fantastic job at Grand Junction, developing talent and putting large linemen and fast skill players on the field.
“I look at them as more than a good team, they’re more of a good program,” Lowry said. “They’ve been good for several years in a row. It’s more than a one-hit wonder.”