Swarming Bears

Team tackling has helped Rifle defense dominate opponents

The Rifle defense excels at multiple defenders converging on a ball carrier, as shown by Kellin Leigh, 22, Nick Kosht, left, and Lee Harrison, right, vs. Palisade.

RIFLE — Anthony Alfini isn’t about to claim Rifle High School’s defense as the biggest, baddest unit in Colorado, or even Class 3A. He will classify the unit as one of the most effective, though.

“We’re not going to physically manhandle anybody,” said the defensive coordinator of the top-ranked Bears, who take their unbeaten 8-0 record (6-0 Class 3A Western Slope Conference) into Friday night’s game at Delta.

“Our kids don’t have a lot of size,” Alfini continued. “But they have a lot of speed and have great technique, and they do a great job of using that technique.”

It’s clear how well the Bears have used that technique just by looking at the scoreboard. They’ve allowed a mere 22 points in seven games after their 56-0 victory Friday over Steamboat Springs

Rifle has shut out four opponents (Moffat County, Glenwood Springs, Battle Mountain and Steamboat Springs) and held then-No. 2 Palisade without a touchdown in a 31-3 victory on Oct. 4. Against Battle Mountain on Sept. 28, the Huskies were held to minus-13 yards of total offense in a 55-0 Rifle win. Two weeks ago in a 38-7 victory over then-No. 7 Conifer, Travis Tadra’s point-after kick for Conifer was the first successful extra point against Rifle all season.

Yet with all of that success, the Bears manage it with a pint-sized defensive front that has faced a schedule full of stellar rushing attacks. Conifer, which rushed for 648 yards the week prior to the Lobos’ matchup with Rifle, was limited to only 155 yards of total offense against the Bears.

“I think it’s a case where we know that every runner is a decent runner, so we know that it will take more than just one person to stop the runner at the line of scrimmage,” said junior linebacker Clayton Coombs, one of the Bears’ bigger defensive players at 6-feet, 190 pounds. “We all know that it’s everybody’s job to get to the ball.”

As an example, Hugo Ruelas, Rifle’s starting nose guard, is 5-6 and weighs 145 pounds. Defensive lineman Zach Bare is a 5-10, 160-pound junior, and linebacker Cody Beauford, who averages more than nine tackles per game, is a 5-10, 185-pound senior.

“I think our defense takes a lot of pride in getting everyone to the ball,” Ruelas said. “We need 11 guys to the ball at all times, and I think that’s why our defense does so good.

“We have good players, and we have star players. But as a team we all work together to just get it done. We don’t like to get picked on by the bigger kids.”

That drive is what has kept Rifle’s opponents out of the end zone. When the Bears played Palisade at Stocker Stadium, Palisade’s final drive of the game came up a foot short of the goal line as the game clock expired. Rifle’s defense celebrated, and head coach Damon Wells rushed onto the field to slap high-fives with his players as they came off the field.

And it’s the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy those players on the field have that has motivated Rifle’s defensive unit.

“When they get close to the goal line, it just raises the intensity up that much more,” Ruelas said. “When you stop them, it demoralizes them, and we get the ball back. We want the ball all the time, and we don’t like to be scored on.”


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