Running the football never gets old for Bears
Damon Wells isn’t about to make any kind of prediction for the upcoming season for Rifle High School’s football team.
“No clue at all. Honestly, I just hope we can compete against Basalt,” Wells said in reference to the Bears’ season opener against the Longhorns. “That is in all sincerity how I feel right now.”
Rifle has held its own since the beginning of the decade when it comes to competing. The Bears played for state championships in 2012 and 2014, won four consecutive Class 3A Western Slope Conference titles until 2014, and have gone 67-16 since their last losing season in 2009.
That kind of track record leads to the belief that Rifle will compete for its seventh consecutive postseason berth based on a blue-collar philosophy passed down from one team to the next every season.
“We know we’re not the biggest team in the league, so we have to work with what we have,” Rifle lineman and defensive end Ramon Salvadrez said. “Other schools don’t really faze us. We know how hard all of us work and we know what all of us can do.”
One thing Rifle has always been able to do is run the football, and that was no different last year. The Bears averaged 308.5 rushing yards per game, good for seventh-best in all of Colorado and fifth in 3A, with Discovery Canyon and defending WSC champion Palisade leading the way.
The bulk of those rushing yards came from running backs Drake Montgomery and Blaine Vance, who combined for 2,342 of the Bears’ 3,393 yards on the ground. Both have graduated.
Some of Rifle’s underclassmen got carries in the Bears’ first-round playoff loss to Holy Family and that gave this season’s running backs a head start.
“The great thing about the playoffs is you get another full week of practice,” Wells said. “So along with that playoff experience, they got in all of those extra reps.”
Among those who will take advantage of those extra practices is senior running back Camron Shepherd, whose 740 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on only 84 carries (8.8 yards per carry) is tops among returning players. Junior tailback Tanner Vines, who got some extra playing time in that playoff game, will join Shepherd in the backfield along with returning starting quarterback Luke Ellis (21 of 66 passing, 454 yards, three TDs, seven interceptions). Brandon Fletchall, another senior, will also see time in the backfield.
“Drake and Blaine were really good and made a big difference for us,” senior offensive lineman Connor Gould said. “But we have some guys in place who are figuring things out, so we really shouldn’t miss that much of a beat.”
Rifle’s front line does have a little size in junior center and defensive lineman Wyatt Warfel (5-foot-11, 225 pounds), but other returning linemen like Gould and Salvadrez don’t tip the scales that much. The Bears’ Wing-T offense relies heavily speed and deception and doesn’t need a lot of front-line size to be effective.
“Rifle has always been scrappy, it will be the same way for us this year,” Gould said.
The Bears had three players who finished last season with 55 tackles on defense, including Shepherd and Salvadrez, and senior Pedro Carreon will be back at linebacker. Shepherd, Vines and Fletchall all return in the defensive secondary.
Rifle hopes this group of players, like teams past, will build on what the previous team had done.
“We’re all young,” Salvadrez said. “Our goal every year is to keep doing better and better, and things are no different this year.”