Rifle Bears hoping for another playoff run
It’s business as usual for Rifle High School.
With a talented and experienced team returning in 2014, the Bears will again be a team to watch in Class 3A.
Rifle has eight players who started or played extensively in the 2012 state title game loss.
For coach Damon Wells, the main priority is to make the playoffs.
“With our league being so tough, we just want in the playoffs. We have enough T-shirts that say league champions on them. We just want to get into the playoffs and see what happens,” he said.
Led by all-state linebacker Austin Shepherd, the Bears will be tough and physical on defense as usual.
But it’s that playoff experience that could set them apart.
“I think experience definitely works in our favor,” Wells said. “Every year these seniors have been in high school, they’ve been at least part of a league championship, so that’s all they know. But they certainly don’t feel entitled, and they’ve done the work.”
Defensively, Shepherd will be joined at inside linebacker by Brock Clark and up front by 260-pound nose guard Jose Prado, leading a talented group, which also includes two more seniors at outside linebacker in Cody Rice and Alex Gould.
The Bears lost two key running backs from last season, but Clark will be the main runner this season after rushing for more than 900 yards in 2013.
The Bears always have one of the best ground games and have led Class 3A in rushing the past two seasons. Rifle will again lean heavily on its running game.
With such a devastating run game, Wells’ wing-T offense is always hard to stop, but the veteran coach hopes to keep teams off balance with a more diverse offense than in past years.
Senior Layton Stutsman returns at quarterback, and the Bears showed promise during this summer’s 7-on-7 camps. Senior Austin Knight is a quality athlete who will play in the secondary and be one of the Bears’ main receiving threats.
During the past three seasons, Rifle has lost to the eventual 3A state champs in the playoffs. All three of those programs have now moved to Class 4A.
Wells said playing in the 3A Western Slope Conference is good and bad. The competitive and physical conference helps prepare teams for the postseason, but it can also beat teams up.
Last season, Rifle shared the WSC title, but its lone conference loss came against Palisade and gave the Bulldogs the No. 1 spot.
Rifle lost in the first round to eventual champ Coronado, which was playing down in 3A.
Turnovers played a big part in all three of Rifle’s losses last season, and avoiding turnovers will again be key if they Bears hope to be title contenders in the conference and beyond.
With its battle-tested group of seniors, Rifle will be ready for another run.
“We say every group leaves their own legacy,” Wells said. “That toughness, hard work and work ethic, that’s something this group has carried the torch with.”