Moffat County football readies for raucous Rifle game as playoffs loom
Between a shortened roster, harsh elements, and an even harsher opponent, there’s no getting around the fact that Friday night will be an uphill battle in every way for Moffat County High School football.
Still, Bulldog players and coaches may have another week in store for them after surviving the final game of the regular season.
MCHS travels to Rifle Friday night to complete their schedule for the fall, a game that will pit the Dogs against the 2A Western Slope League champion Bears, the ninth game of the season for both sides that will definitely lead in to a 10th for one squad and hopefully so for the other.
At 5-3, the Bulldogs are expecting their toughest game yet from the Bears, who moved to 8-0 last week and are seeking a total sweep of the 2A Western Slope League with a win over Moffat County.
Either way, Rifle has already achieved two things: a repeat of the conference title — which they cemented with a 21-9 victory against Basalt on Oct. 25 — and a guaranteed home game for the 2A playoffs.
Last year, the Bears had to wait until the last week of the season to celebrate the Western Slope title, their first such occasion since 2014, finishing second in the 3A WSL for three consecutive years to either Delta or Palisade.
Since dropping to 2A in 2018, Rifle has been the bane of every school in the region, and their sophomore season among smaller schools has seen them stomp every challenger, with their greatest margin of victory so far a 49-0 blowout of Aspen.
Most recently, Colorado High School Activities Association named Rifle’s Damon Wells the Denver Broncos Coach of the Week.
In the interview for the distinction, Wells noted the familiar faces the Bears have seen since changing divisions.
“First, we were one of the smallest 3A schools for six straight years and went to two state finals during that time,” he said. “And when we finally did move down to 2A, it’s half of what the old 3A Western Slope League used to be with Moffat County and Delta. So it’s really more normal than anything else.”
Though he’s only faced Rifle once — a 52-26 loss in Craig last year — MoCo head coach Jamie Nelson has heard enough of the stories to know the reputation of dominance is long-running.
“They’ve been successful for years, and after being in the quarterfinals for 3A, then dropping to 2A, that’s really going to enhance your confidence and your momentum,” he said.
This year may be among the Bears’ best in terms of numbers.
Besides experiencing no losses yet, the team’s offense is led by running back Levi Warfel, the league leader by a wide margin in rushing yardage at 1,445, also having eaten up more turf than anyone in 2A and fifth overall among every classification that utilizes an 11-man format.
Warfel still has a long way to go to catch up to former teammate Tanner Vines, who led the entire state in yardage in 11-man in 2018 at 2,230.
“They’re resilient, they just keep hammering and hammering, so our guys will need to play tough,” Nelson said. “I think the big thing we can do is sustain a drive — first down, first down, first down — and come away with points on the end, the best defense is a slow-controlled offense. We’re gonna throw the book at them and try everything we can to get some kind of edge and see what we can make happen. Everybody’s beatable.”
Though scoring has been limited in the WSL part of the year — 34 points across the past four matches — the Bulldogs remain one of the biggest threats on defense, with Joe Campagna and Taran Teeter leading the WSL in total tackles with 83 and 81, respectively.
Campagna also ranks second in sacks with 5.5.
While the Bulldogs have been no slouch this season in the ground game, they’ll be finishing the schedule without one of their best players, with leading scorer Kevin Hernandez officially off the roster this week.
Though reworking the offense means younger players have to adjust, Nelson said there’s no shortage of athletes ready to step up for the varsity backfield.
“We’ve got plenty of guys willing to take a shot if they’re given one,” he said. “Last year our seniors really started clicking around game 9, and some of our young guys have got to handle the pressure and the expectations that come with that.”
Case in point, MCHS’s junior varsity moved their way to 7-1 with a 32-14 win over Delta Tuesday on neutral ground at Parachute’s Grand Valley High School, a game that had to be rescheduled due to officials’ scheduling, as well as winter weather pounding the Western Slope.
The recent wave of snow impacted the Bulldog Proving Grounds harshly, with players limited this week in practice sessions, and though precipitation isn’t expected Friday night, both teams are no doubt in for a frigid game.
“We’ve had about eight inches of snow up there, a little bit more than we’d like to see this early,” Nelson said.
With Rifle currently ranked first in coaches’ polls and third in the RPI standings — the latter of which will determine postseason seeding — the Bears will be playing with a determination to go unscathed into the elite part of the fall.
MoCo also has eyes set on the playoffs, though at 14th, their qualification will depend as much on other games around the state as it will on their Friday outing, and being right on the cusp of the 16-team cutoff means they can take nothing for granted until the brackets are released the following Sunday.
For now, Nelson’s attention is focused more on the next game than the next level.
“We don’t know if this will be our last game or not, if we squeak into the playoffs, but we’ll be playing our hardest,” he said. “We’ve told the kids, just play like you have nothing to lose, go in there and play your tails off. Play like it’s your last game, and maybe it won’t be.”