Third straight SWC title on the line for Tigers
There is consensus as to the Southwestern Conference favorite: Grand Junction.
The Tigers, a two-time defending SWC champion, has a decided size advantage on its line, and despite losing two of their top playmakers — quarterback Sean Rubalcaba and running back Jerreon Dennis — the Tigers are a clear favorite.
But as some coaches pointed out, the football is oblong and, yes, it can bounce one team’s way and change a game.
Montrose and Fruita Monument, in particular, might not need lucky bounces.
Especially the Indians, the most recent team other than Grand Junction to win a SWC title. In 2009-10 they went 4-0 in the conference before losing in the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs.
Montrose’s advantage? It is the only team to return a starting quarterback: Drew Casebier. Junction lost Denver Post Gold Helmet award winner Rubalcaba; Central said “see ya” to Taylor Sanchez (1,005 yards passing, 1,006 rushing), Durango will be without Joe Keresey (527 yards passing, 15 TDs) and Fruita Monument bid farewell to Zach Thorpe, who signed to play at Western State Colorado University.
“Having that consistency at quarterback is probably to the advantage Montrose has right now with Casebier returning,” Grand Junction coach Robbie Owens said.
Experience could be one of the reasons Montrose pushes Grand Junction like it did last season, when the Indians trailed 35-21 in the fourth quarter, with a chance to cut the lead to seven, Montrose coach Todd Casebier said.
But Grand Junction recovered a fumble and eventually rolled to a 49-21 win.
The Tigers play at Montrose on Oct. 19.
“I know what to look for on defense,” Drew Casebier said. “We call a lot of audible stuff, so I can see what to look for and just being around the same offense I know what we want to run in certain situations. That gives us an advantage over other people because we can run whatever we want on the first three downs. Then, if we want to go for it on fourth down, you run that audible and you’re good to go.”
And don’t sleep on Fruita.
“Fruita made great strides last year and has some very good athletes,” Durango coach Greg Wyatt said.
Vince Grasso is one of them. Along with Montrose’s Angelo Youngren, Grasso is one of the best running backs in the league, according to most SWC coaches.
“That kid looked good at camp,” Central coach Vern McGee said of Grasso’s play at this summer’s Colorado Mesa University camp.
“He’s strong, and he can run up the middle and break tackles and is fast enough to get to the outside, too. He was probably the best back at the Mesa camp, I thought.”
Fruita coach Sean Mulvey agreed.
“I believe (Grasso) is one of the best backs in the state, but if you start talking about league, the Youngren kid is good,” Fruita Monument coach Sean Mulvey said. “But we’re not worried about anybody looking at us.”
Fruita needs to cut down on turnovers, as it committed 17 of them in the final four games of last season.
“And we need to do a better job of playing assignment football on both sides of the ball, and we need some leaders to step up and lead our younger kids,” Mulvey said.
Grand Junction’s Austin Berk, who verbally committed to Colorado State University, and James Diamanti, who verbally committed to the University of Wyoming, are the big names on Grand Junction’s line. They are heavy and agile across the board, something SWC opponents likely will have a difficult time coping with.
“I hate to say it, but they’re going to be good,” McGee said.
But can Grand Junction overcome the loss of Rubalcaba?
If there is a single factor that could influence who will be the league champion, the departure of “Ruby” could be it.
On the other hand, perhaps the Tigers’ line will control a game to the extent that it shows how integral line play is to a team’s success.
“They’ll be good again,” Montrose coach Todd Casebier said. “How good, I don’t know.”
We’ll find out.