Bear Seniors Finish with 24-2 Mark in Last Two Seasons
AURORA (12/1/12) — Twenty-four wins and just two losses: a superb, but bittersweet legacy of the last two years for thirteen Rifle High School seniors…. bittersweet because both of those losses, including 32-15 to Silver Creek in Saturday’s 3A championship at Legacy Stadium in Aurora, came in the final game of what was previously an undefeated season.
The Bears (13-1), who were ranked number one all season-long, had met and, almost easily, overcome all challengers — including seven of the other 15 teams in the state playoff bracket. Only eighth-seeded Roosevelt (7-4) had put up any resistance at all, falling 48-34 in the quarterfinals at Rifle.
Palisade (8-3), undefeated and ranked second in the state when they hosted Rifle, in early October, was crushed 31-3. Conifer (10-3) reached the semifinals before falling 24-7 to Silver Creek and were rated number three before being blasted 38-7 in Rifle, October 12. Eagle Valley (8-4), edged by Conifer in the quarterfinals, 16-10, managed something no other team had done against the Bears when they scored twice, but yielded 52 in the regular season finale.
So, despite the Raptors’ pedigree, having reached the 3A championship last season before losing to Windsor (which eliminated Rifle in the quarterfinals, 36-15), 14-7, there was really no reason to think the Bears wouldn’t add an extinct, flying dinosaur-era mascot to their trophy case along with a golden football to place next to the ones from 2004, 1973, and 1961.
Sure, junior quarterback Ben Sjobakken had impressive credentials, 2300 yards passing, 24 touchdowns and only two interceptions in nearly 300 attempts — but Pueblo East’s Kurt Rode had similar statistics and the Bears sacked him twice, intercepted him once and limited him to 56 yards on 5-of-15 passing before a 42-0 score started a running clock in the semifinal game last weekend.
The Raptors (11-2) began the game as many of Rifle’s opponents had this season, putting together three first-downs in their opening drive, but the impressive crowd of fans filling 6 of the 7 sections in the east stands at Cherokee Trail High School waited expectantly for the stingy Bear defense to turn Sjobakken and his mates aside. When Brock Clark’s pressure and Bailey Hoffmeister’s coverage forced an incompletion on 2nd-and-11 at the 17, and a four-yard pass brought up 4th-and-4 at the 13, it looked like “Deja vu, all over again,” in Yogi Berra’s classic malapropism.
But Sjobakken, who was 7 of 8 in the 80-yard scoring drive, deviated from Rifle’s season-long script and found Trey Fleming in the end zone to put the Bears behind for the first time in 14 games. The drive had consumed 12 plays and nearly five minutes and Ryan Charles’ extra point gave Silver Creek a 7-0 lead.
The Bears and senior quarterback Adam Rice seemingly were not unsettled by the unfamiliar position on the scoreboard, answering with a 13-play, 80-yard drive of their own that featured a pair of completions from Rice to Aaron Wagler: 29 yards on the first play from the 20 and 14 yards on 4th-and-5 from the Raptor 36.
Ryan Moeller, whose video-game statistics (3,022 yards and 48 touchdowns) naturally drew the most attention from Silver Creek’s exclusively two-platoon defense, managed just 21 yards in six carries, but did follow the blocking of Zach Bare and Hugo Ruelas over the left side for the final 8 yard score. Marco Gutierrez tied the score at seven with 1:36 left in the first quarter.
It was only the second time an opponent had been even with Rifle (aside from 0-0 until the Bears’ first score)… and Conifer’s 7-7 tie lasted only 18 seconds until Wagler returned the ensuing kickoff 82 yards.
A return to the status quo seemed imminent when the Raptors’ next possession went 3-and-out, and the Bears began dealing a steady dose of Moeller around end, off tackle and up the middle, including his longest run of the game thus far, 12 yards for a first down at Rifle’s 49. But two incompletions around Moeller’s four-yard gain to the 47 forced Wagler’s punt to the Raptor 28.
Sjobakken threw a 28-yard strike on the first play to Zane Linsey (one of four receivers featured in the Raptors’ spread offense, mindful of Dakota Stonehouse and his corps of Glenwood Springs’ receivers in the Demons’ 2008 state title year), then — with the Bear defense dropping into pass coverage on 2nd-and-10, 5-9 Josh Quiroz slipped through the middle for 24 yards to the Rifle 29. Alternating pass-and-run, the Raptors finished the six-play drive with Sjobakken hitting Eric Machmueller for a 10-yard touchdown and a 14-7 lead with 6:57 left in the second quarter.
The Bears’ next two possessions featured two rare occurrences in what had been a magical season thus far: turnovers and a costly penalty. Rice was intercepted by linebacker Collin Gibbs following the Raptor score, but a sack by Kellin Leigh and Bare forced Silver Creek to punt, the ball being downed inside the five yard line. Rifle began driving, picking up four first downs, including Leigh’s 15 yard dash around right end on 4th-and-two that carried to the Raptor 40. Rice found Wagler again for a 14 yard pass to the 26, but then was sacked for a 13 yard loss, and his fumble turned the ball over 17 seconds before halftime.
Sjobakken connected with yet another receiver, Brock Ricks, on a short completion, but a late hit out of bounds moved the ball to Rifle’s 39. After an incompletion and a 6-yard pass to Fleming, Charles lined up for a 50-yard field goal with two seconds on the clock. The senior placekicker, who had seven field goals this season, made it eight as time expired, giving Silver Creek a 17-7 halftime lead.
The Bears’ opening third-quarter possession was backed up by a holding penalty to the seven-yard line and Wagler’s punt went out of bounds at the Rifle 40. Quiroz gained 13 yards before three incompletions set up another Charles’ field goal, from 43 yards out, for a 20-7 Raptor lead with 9:15 to go in the period.
Following Charles’ touchback on the kickoff, Rifle managed one first down before Wagler’s punt traveled just 20 yards to the Raptor 46. Six plays later, a 7 yard touchdown pass to Linsey left the Bears behind 26-7 when the conversion pass failed.
Showing the great heart and spirit that formed 24 wins in two seasons, the Bears mounted a comeback, gaining 4 first-downs, including a 4th-and-two run by Moeller from the Raptor 25 down to the 7, and the senior knifed into the end zone from the two on the first play of the fourth quarter. Rice connected with Leigh for a two-point pass cutting the lead to 26-15 with 11:56 to play.
Two failed gambles effectively ended the Bears’ championship hopes. First, Silver Creek recovered the onside kick attempt, but couldn’t add to their lead when Charles missed a 46 yard field goal try. Then, after Leigh’s 14 yard run gave Rifle a first down near midfield, Moeller rolled right and lofted a pass downfield that was intercepted.
The Raptors followed the Bears’ third turnover of the game with a nine-play, 57-yard drive, ending with Sjobakken’s fourth touchdown pass of the game, 25 yards to Fleming, sealing the victory with 2:55 remaining.
Despite Silver Creek’s defensive front four outweighing the Rifle offensive line by an average of 50 pounds, Eli Boone, Cody Beauford, Clayton Coombs, Bare, and Hugo Ruelas still managed to open enough holes for Moeller to gain 140 yards in 29 carries and Leigh to rush for 110 in 15 attempts. But the Raptors’ sure tackling prevented either Bear runner from breaking free on what had become commonplace long touchdown runs. Rice was 4-of-11 with two interceptions and 61 yards passing.
Sjobakken completed 21-of-29 for 244 yards to go with his 4 TDs while Quiroz ran for 77 yards in 17 carries.
This was Silver Creek’s first championship since the school began in 2001. The Bears were also runner-ups in 2005, the year following their last championship. A 24-2 record in their final two years leaves quite an impressive mark for Rifle’s seniors, including Moeller, Wagler, Rice, Anthony Valez, Gutierrez, Lee Harrison, Keimi Payan, Coy Zang, Ruelas, Beauford, Jake Whaley, Boone, Omar Lerma, and Ira Kest, not as golden as they had hoped, but still a shining legacy for their teammates returning next year to follow.