Roping up hope: Cowboys never quit despite tough times, winless season

Plateau Valley head football coach Dave Bristol addresses his team during halftime of their Oct. 20 home game against Nucla. After taking an 8-0 lead after one quarter, the Cowboys trailed 54-16 at the half. At least the Cowboys scored some points. They had been shut out in their previous five games.

Plateau Valley football assistant coach Justin Clark wore a tan cowboy hat, black Western shirt, green kerchief and Wrangler blue jeans on the sidelines of the Cowboys’ home game Oct. 20 against Nucla. It’s not normal attire on a football sideline, but it is for Clark. “He’s not a guy who dresses like a cowboy. He’s the real deal,” Plateau Valley head coach Dave Bristol said. Clark is a former professional bull fighter on the pro rodeo circuit who now ranches and trains horses.

Back in the 1990s when Plateau Valley was playing 11-man football and consistently reaching the playoffs in Class 1A, the home bleachers would be packed, and people without seats would stand along the west side of the field, according to Eric Bevan, a lineman on two of the Cowboys’ state semifinal playoff teams. For Plateau Valley’s final home game of this season, a sparse crowd assembled. A first-half head count totaled just shy of 100 people on the home side of the field, either sitting in the stands or standing or sitting along the side.

The scores aren’t pretty: 36-8; 62-0; 63-0; 
62-0; 46-0; 57-0 and 70-16.

It would be tough enough to be on the losing end of one of them. For Plateau Valley High School’s Class A 8-man football team, it was all of them.

Saying times are tough for the Cowboys is like saying absolute zero is cold. In a sport that makes boys into men, such losses are discouraging. What better reason to quit if you’re a senior and sick of losing? What better reason to quit if you’re a freshman and don’t want to go through three more years of getting beat up physically, only to look at a scoreboard with another soul-crushing revelation?

But here’s the thing about the Cowboys: The players didn’t quit.

That was on display in spades two weeks ago on a beautiful mid-October day that produced another ugly score: Nucla 70, Plateau Valley 16.

But the Cowboys did some things right. They led 8-0 after the first quarter, scoring their first points in six games. With the Mustangs en route to 54 second-quarter points, Plateau Valley snuck in a touchdown to make it 38-16.

And with a running clock mercifully expediting the second half, Plateau Valley drove toward the end zone with time running out. The Cowboys even used a timeout with 8.4 seconds left and the ball at Nucla’s 11-yard line, intent on scoring and ending the game, and their season, on a good note. The touchdown didn’t materialize. The heart that gives Plateau Valley hope did.

The Cowboys never quit. They showed game after game they won’t quit.

That’s just one reason there’s hope.

Former state power

It wasn’t always this way for Plateau Valley football. A banner hanging in the school’s main gymnasium lists past successes, including an impressive run in the 1990s in which the Cowboys reached the Class 1A 11-man playoff semifinals three times (1994, 1995, 1997) in a five-year span. The other two years (1996, 1998) they reached the quarterfinals.

On the heels of that, Plateau Valley won its league championship in 1999 and 2000. As recently as 2006 and 2007, the Cowboys qualified for the state playoffs in Class A 8-man, which the school switched to in 2006 because of its declining enrollment.

Eric Bevan remembers the good old days. He was a starting lineman on those 1994–95 teams.

“I remember the stands and sidelines being packed full of people,” he said. “You had to get there at 10 in the morning if you wanted to sit in the stands (for a 1 p.m. game).”

The stands for the Oct. 20 Nucla game were half full at best. A head count during the middle of the first quarter totaled 95 people in the home bleachers or along the home sideline. On Nucla’s sideline, there were 17 fans. The count didn’t include the three-person chain gang, the two ball boys, the four people in the press box or the three workers staffing the ambulance from Plateau Valley Fire & Rescue.

A couple of workers at the Collbran Supply Ace Hardware, where Bevan works in outside sales, said it’s tough to see the football team struggle. Bevan said he hasn’t been to a game since his younger brother played his final season in 1999.

Tascha Vig, a clerk at the store and a 1995 Plateau Valley grad, said she made it to one game. Fred Feller, the store owner, said he hasn’t made it to many games since his son, Hansi, graduated in 2005.

“I try to make it, but I don’t get to a lot of them,” Feller admitted, saying most of the fans these days are the parents, as he was, or grandparents of the kids who are playing. “You want to go, but you don’t find the time.”

Winning changes that. A good team leads people to find the time. Competitive teams get people talking at the local post office, the grocery store, the hardware store.

When the football team is winning, “People get excited about it and start talking about it, and people start to come (to the games),” Feller said.

Getting kids on the gridiron

Vig and Bevan figure to be regular attendees in the coming years. Vig’s 10-year-old son, Austyn, plays football. Bevan has twin boys, Jackson and Heston, in kindergarten, and he says they’re going to be football players.

Vig and Bevan spoke of the hope that comes from a movement in recent years to get younger kids in the Collbran, Mesa and Molina area to play organized football together. People such as Matt Guedes, who coached the high school team for one year and produced the Cowboys’ last winning season, 5-4 in 2008, and T.J. Gately are among the people who have worked to get boys ages 7 to 14 playing football in leagues in Grand Junction.

It’s another reason there’s hope for a return to football glory for the Cowboys.

Larger class sizes are coming soon to the high school, which this year has an enrollment of 85 students, with the freshman class the largest at 26. The sophomore class, on the other hand, numbers 15 students, according to numbers provided by Plateau Valley School District Superintendent Greg Randall.

The eighth-graders also are few in number, 16, but then comes the small-town population explosion. There are 32 students in the seventh grade, 35 in the sixth and 29 in the fifth, Randall said.

Vig calls them “huge numbers,” and many of the boys already have been playing football together for several years, such as 20 area seventh-graders.

“Hopefully we can get our program going again, so they have a chance” Vig said. “It’s important for those boys. They live for it.”

Bevan has a longer wait until his boys reach high school. As he puts it, “We have 10 years for it to change. I hope it doesn’t take that long. We’re definitely looking forward to the future.”

Seniors persevere 
for program

A bright future sounds great. But it isn’t here yet. In the meantime, it takes others to shoulder the burden of the difficult times, keeping the program alive so others can know better times.

If that sounds altruistic, then Fernando Enriquez and West Castro are altruists. The seniors knew this year would be rough. They just wish it hadn’t been what it was. At least one win would have been nice.

Neither leaves the program regretting they stuck it out.

Enriquez, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound bull of an offensive and defensive lineman who earned all-conference honors a year ago, had personal reasons to keep playing hard through all of the losses: He wants to play college football. And he had team reasons: “Keep the program alive,” he said.

“The way I cope with it is I’m trying to get better,” said Enriquez, who was the only Cowboy senior among the five on the roster still on the field playing at the end of the Nucla game. Castro would have been out there, too, but he broke his collarbone on the first series of the game.

“Do it for the good of the team, help the program,” Enriquez said. “That’s pretty much what helped me get through the season.”

Enriquez wanted to help the younger players improve because he remembers what it was like to be a freshman on the varsity, and freshmen and sophomores were nearly half of the Cowboys’ team this year.

He wants future Cowboys to win.

So does West Castro, one of Wayne Castro’s four boys who play football. One graduated in 2010: Cade. Another was a sophomore on this year’s team: Lane. Then, in that group of seventh-graders who have been playing together for several years is Noah Castro.

“It’s tough,” West said of the winless season. “But it’s fun to play. And you want the younger kids to have a chance, maybe do something we never did.”

West Castro talks about Noah’s class and smiles at the thought of Plateau Valley having players who already are versed in the game. That hasn’t been the case in recent years, when the program nearly disappeared for a year because of a lack of numbers. Coach Joe Melendez died during the summer before the 2010 season, and Dave Bristol returned for his fourth stint as head coach of the Cowboys. Bristol didn’t know if there would be enough players. They found enough. But they weren’t all Plateau Valley kids, and some of them had never played organized football in their lives.

Instead of teaching scheme, he was teaching the fundamentals of football, even to some juniors and seniors.

Enriquez and West Castro both like the fact several sophomores and freshmen got a lot of playing time this year. They’ll be better for it. Plateau Valley will be better for it.

“It’s looking up,” Castro said. “Even with most of this team, over half are freshmen and sophomores, and they’re all pretty good athletes.”

Young players 
tough, courageous

Arles Hernandez is one of the freshmen, and if he doesn’t offer hope, no one does.

Hernandez became the team’s quarterback early in the season after West Castro suffered an injury. When Castro returned, he became a jack of all trades on offense, a player who could line up anywhere and be a threat.

Hernandez, a two-time junior high state bull-riding champ, comes from a rodeo family that includes uncles Hank Bounds and Travis Bounds, who were standout football players and wrestlers at Palisade High School before becoming pros on the rodeo circuit.

Hernandez wants to be like them. And part of that is experiencing success in football.

His rodeo toughness showed this fall. At 5-foot-9, 135 pounds, he needed it. The Nucla game was this season’s final example. Hernandez got hit, hard and often, and he kept getting back up. In the second half, he got the wind knocked out of him and headed to the ambulance for a few minutes to recover. Then, he was back on the field, leading that final drive, hoping to get one more score.

He has skills he needs to hone, but that Saturday afternoon he flashed play-making ability that should only get better. And he’s not alone.

Bristol spoke highly of a number of the young players. Freshman lineman Tony Harris and sophomore tight end and defensive end Alex Cox are worth singling out because they hadn’t played football until this year, Bristol said. And Harris at 170 pounds and Cox at 145 pounds got pounded by bigger linemen this season.

But, Bristol said, Harris kept fighting all season, not one to yield to anyone, regardless of size.

And Cox, Bristol said, “He kept coming back and coming back. Eventually, at the end of the year, he started making some plays.”

In general, the underclassmen impressed Bristol with their toughness.

“It took courage,” he said, “for those kids to go back week after week after week. Those kids have taken some shots, and they’re still here.”

‘They’re still here’

Bristol hopes he’s saying the same thing next fall. He thinks he will be. One of the things that has changed after three years back at the helm of the Cowboys is he’s getting Plateau Valley students to play football. The Cowboys are not having to rely on nearby Collbran Job Corps students to suit up, nor students from De Beque High School to join the team for them to have enough players.

“We had 20 kids this year, and 18 were Plateau Valley kids,” Bristol said. “Eighteen were ready to play, and 16 were Plateau Valley kids.”

And from that group, he said all but four will be back next year, a far cry from the four who were back this year.

“The basis is there,” Bristol said. “We will have a group of 10, 11 kids who’ve played a lot.”

The end of the Nucla game was the beginning of working on next season.

The first thing Bristol told his players was the Nucla game made it clear they need to get in the weight room. Get bigger. Get stronger.

Soon after, Bristol’s son Brian, an assistant coach and science teacher for the past two years at Plateau Valley, broke down the plans for having the players lift weights regularly throughout the offseason, provided they aren’t in another sports season.

“We’re going to lift four days a week, November to August,” said Brian Bristol, not too far removed from playing college football.

Brian Bristol’s youthful presence in the building provides another boost for the program, according to his dad. Kids might relate better to Brian, Dave Bristol said, and he’s young enough to do the lifts that players need to be taught.

Coach is coming back

The elder Bristol also informed his players he’ll be back as their coach, providing a continuity that was absent during the previous decade, when the Cowboys had a new head coach eight different years from 2001 to 2010. Three of those times marked returns by Bristol, who thought he’d retired from coaching three different times but still finds himself coaching football.

“I love the game, and I love the program,” said Bristol, who coached the team during its best years in the 1990s.

He also would like to have a hand in returning the Cowboys to glory. And he doesn’t want to leave after the year Plateau Valley just had.

“Oh-and-seven hurts,” he said. “I’m 64. I thought at this age I wouldn’t be quite as competitive, but it just eats at you.

“Anyone who’s gone through it, you ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’ I could be going to Kansas and playing with my grandkids.”

Instead, he wants to help facilitate the return to competitive football and playoff appearances by the Cowboys.

So, he told his players in that postgame huddle, “I’ll be here. The good Lord willing, the creek doesn’t rise, and I don’t get fired.”

He knows he won’t coach many more years, and he said in no way should he be characterized as saving the program. Too many other people are involved and necessary in the turnaround, he said.

He just hopes the progress continues, the enthusiasm for football grows, and he leaves something for the next coaching staff: Hope.


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