Just a few minutes away from punching their ticket to the 3A playoffs, Bears senior Bryce Rowley was anxiously lingering on the sidelines when one of his teammates asked how many quarterback sacks he had.
“Three,” he responded confidently. “But I’m going for one more.”
If it weren’t for the backfield ambushes by Rowley, perhaps the outcome of the Bears’ 28-20 win over The Academy on Saturday could’ve been different. The 140-pound outside linebacker equipped with a keen nose for the ball did in fact inflict three punishing sacks on junior Wildcats starting quarterback Isaiah Eliot.
“We had a good two weeks of practice with the team and it’s going hard,” Rowley said after the win. “Even though I didn’t meet my quota (for sacks), I’m gonna go for more next week… I know that much.”
Nearing the end of the first quarter, Eliot mishandled a bad snap on their own 32-yard line and, boom, Rowley picked up his first sack of the day by popping Eliot for a staggering 23-yard loss. The play led to a turnover on downs on a 4th-and-26.
The play was huge considering the Wildcats initially marched their way downfield on the opening drive and scored on a short rush via Eliot, putting them up 7-0 at 8:49 in the first quarter. Rifle would answer back with a short town down run by junior Bears running-back Toto Fletchall, tying the game at 7 apiece at 4:59.
Rowley’s major hit would later set up senior Bears running back Kaden Wolf for a rushing touchdown from the 6-yard line, placing Rifle up 14-7 at 2:16 in the first quarter.
Bears head coach Todd Casebier was impressed by his defense’s efforts.
“They got the job done,” he said. “… Our offense gave more points up than our defense. That’s problematic this time of the year but give the defensive coaches — (Coach Time Place, Coach Trorie Rickert, Coach Tom West and Coach Jim Wilson) — credit. Our defense played pretty tough.”
The good times, however, didn’t last long for the Bears. Though Bears’ senior linebacker Josh Straw collected a sack on Eliot, which led Academy to a three-and-out and the punt, Rifle would fumble the ball on their very next possession. Wildcats senior Charlie States would scoop up the ball near Rifle’s 47-yard line and run it in for a touchdown.
The Bears and Wildcats would head into the second quarter tied 14-14.
Throughout the majority of the second quarter, both teams found themselves mired in an offensive stalemate.
The Wildcats, however, would finally find themselves in good field position after Eliot completed a soaring long ball to sophomore receiver Derrek Rael in good coverage. But with their potential third score of the game in their crosshairs, Bears senior Embray Marantino would pick off Eliot at the 5-yard line and miraculously return the ball upfield 95 yards for a huge, momentum-gaining touchdown.
“Time sort of slowed down,” Marantino said of the play. “I just had my right hand out and sort of had it and there was a few seconds where I was like, “Oh crap, I have the ball, don’t I?”
It felt like three minutes before everything registered with Marantino, he said.
“It was just hot and after that, I got a little bit lightheaded,” he said. “But I knew that I had to do something big and it just worked out perfectly. Everyone else blocking on that return was just doing a perfect job. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
The game got even dicier nearly midway through the third quarter. Rifle would march downfield before Casebier would give his junior starting quarterback Trey Caldwell the nod to toss it downfield for a big, 34-yard completion to sophomore receiver Kade Bishop.
“We’ve been working on it — Trey’s a good player. We had some protection issues a couple of times but Kade Bishop made a really nice catch,” Casebier said. “We’ve got to keep working on our pass game and we will.”
The gain was short-lived, however, as Rifle would give up a critical fumble on the Wildcats’ 1-yard-line. This time, Rael collected the loose change and took the ball upfield practically unscathed for a 96-yard score.
“You can’t drop the ball on the (1-yard line) going in and you can’t drop the ball, have them pick it up and scoop and score,” Casebier said. “Those are things we haven’t done all year. Again, they blitzed us a little bit, but we’ve got to execute better.”
At the same time, it doesn’t matter, Casebier said. They got the job done.
“We’ve got a young football team, we get to practice and work for another seven days, which was really what we wanted, and it helps us get better and keep going,” he said. “We think it’s going to be against Glenwood, but we’ll see.”
After a failed point-after-attempt, Rifle was up 21-20 at 7:16 in the third quarter.
With 3:09 left in the same quarter, Caldwell would connect with junior receiver Gavin Peterson for a 30-yard touchdown pass.
Up 28-20 around the two-minute mark, Rowley would close out the third quarter highlights by inflicting his second sack of the day on Eliot.
The Wildcats did find some decent looks at the endzone in the fourth quarter, but Rowley would pick up his third and final sack on Eliot with less than 4 minutes to play in the game.
“Even though I toppled on myself, it felt good getting those hits,” he said.
With the win, No. 3 Rifle (5-2 overall, 4-2 conference) now gets a chance at redemption. They prepare for a 3A Western playoff showdown against Glenwood Springs (7-0 overall, 6-0 conference), a team that bested them 22-15 on April 16, next weekend.
“We know what we have to do and we know we have to prepare for whoever we’re playing next weekend,” Marantino said. “I feel pretty confident with our team that we can make it.”
CARDINALS FALL TO ESTES PARK
The Grand Valley Cardinals finished their season (3-4 overall, 3-3) after losing an away game to Estes Park, 40-27.
The Cardinals made a great effort to keep things close, however, as they went into halftime up 21-20. But Estes Park made great strides in the second half, at one point finding themselves up 40-21 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org