Ryan Mahler can empathize with Moffat County's Rusty Cox.
Just like Cox, Mahler wasn't sure what his team would look like in its first game under his tutelage. Mahler's Rifle Bears played their season opener Thursday against Coal Ridge High School. Tuesday's meeting between the Western Slope League foes was Cox's rookie voyage as coach.
"We were much improved today," he said. "In our first game, we were too tired to play. We worked a lot on conditioning since then."
The Bears broke open a 1-1 tie at half. Two second-half goals turned it into a 3-1 victory.
"We made some adjustments on defense for today, and it looked better," Mahler said. "We wore them down in the second half."
However, Cox didn't have the advantage of knowing what pre-game adjustments to make.
"I saw a lot out there today," Cox said. "You never know what your guys will play like in a game from practice, but I did think we've practiced a lot better" than they played.
During the first 20 minutes of the game, the teams took turns controlling the ball at midfield and making runs. Both defenses fought off the attacks with minimal threats on goal.
In the 28th minute, Moffat County's Tracy Mendoza snuck through Rifle's defense and put a shot on goal. Rifle's keeper, Omar Talingo, initially got to the ball, but it deflected back to Mendoza, and he easily scored into the open net.
"There were times where we played aggressive," Cox said. "There were three or four guys on Tracy all night, so it was hard for him to get free."
Shots on goal, fouls and saves were similar for the teams in all but one area. The Bears had eight corner kicks in the first half to Moffat County's two. It was no coincidence that Rifle's first goal came from a corner.
Seven minutes after Mendoza's goal, Rifle's Pablo Salgado sent a bending corner kick right over Moffat's Adrian Hernandez and just below the far corner post.
"We've worked a lot on corners," Mahler said. "I can't stress corners enough in practice, and it paid off today."
Seven minutes into the second half, Salgado found his brother, Ricky, on another corner kick. Ricky was aggressive to the ball when several Bulldogs watched as he got to the ball first and scored.
"We didn't fight hard when balls were around the goal," Cox said. "It's one of those small things we will talk about."
Giving up twice as many corner kicks is also another "small thing" Moffat County's coach will go over with his team.
"We panicked on defense too much and just kicked the ball out," Cox said. "The easiest thing to do is turn and kick the ball out, but we need to make more of an effort to turn the ball."
In the 73rd minute, Rifle's Jose Salazar took advantage of another Moffat County mistake. A goal kick was low, short and right to Salazar, who dribbled around one defender and put the ball past a surprised Moffat goalie.
The Bulldogs had their chances late.
In the 75th minute, Mendoza headed a corner kick over Talingo, but a Rifle defender saved a goal by getting his head on the ball at the last second.
In the 78th minute, Moffat's Inez Quezada missed a penalty kick wide left.
"I moved things around and changed things up a bit to get some looks," Cox said. "We were just off on a couple of things, and I'm not upset or worried. We just need to make some changes."
The Bulldogs will get three days to prepare for traditional WSL powerhouse Battle Mountain on Saturday.
Rifle (1-1, 1-0 in WSL) will try to build on its momentum for its next game Saturday against Steamboat Springs.
"We are coming off of a tough season and we graduated 12 seniors," Mahler said. "This team needs to build its confidence and today helps."