Steamboat Springs At this point in the season, it would be fair to say that Rifle, Palisade and Steamboat Springs are the top three teams football teams in the Western Slope.
Their combined records are 11-3. The other four teams have six wins total. The Denver Post has undefeated Rifle ranked as the No. 1 team in Class 3A. Palisade (3-2) is ninth. Steamboat (3-1) was briefly ranked in the Top 10 earlier this year.
With that said, Bulldogs coach Todd Casebier isn't asking for sympathy he knows he won't get it but he would like a little understanding.
At 7 p.m. tonight at Gardner Field, Palisade has to play Steamboat in what Casebier called a "must-win" game for the Bulldogs just one week after losing to Rifle in overtime, 34-31.
It's not even October.
"It's early, but that's the way it's scheduled," Casebier said. "The winner of this game will have a great shot to be the first or second seed in the playoffs. This is a high-stakes game for our football team."
Steamboat coach Mark Drake offered his shoulder to Casebier for a moment when he said there's no way he would want to face Rifle and Palisade in consecutive weeks, but Drake wasn't sure if league coaches felt the Sailors were as talented as the Bulldogs or Bears.
Casebier does. That's the reason he's not tickled with the schedule, particularly since Palisade fell to both Rifle and Steamboat last year. The loss to the Sailors was at Gardner Field, site of tonight's game. Casebier wasn't certain how that deal got worked out again.
"We know we are playing a good football team at their place," he said. "Steamboat's the toughest place to play. Their kids are a much different team at home than on the road."
And Steamboat didn't play too shabby on its recent road trip to Cortez, defeating the Panthers 35-6.
"We were opportunistic," Drake said. "I really liked that. Our special teams, for the most part, performed well. The offense, I thought they responded well, and the kids are at a point where they are really listening and doing the best they can, which is what we are asking them to do. We had some picks defensively. Unfortunately, the starters didn't get to play four full quarters."
Casebier, however, said his team would like to be in Steamboat's cleats. In the three previous games one win and two losses Palisade's starters have had little rest, as all three have been decided by four points or less. He figures tonight's game the fourth will be close as well.
"Our guys are beat up because we'll have been playing four quarters for four full weeks," Casebier said. "The fact that Steamboat was in a blowout last week was an advantage because their kids are healthy and fresh."
Drake said several starters sat out practice this week nursing injuries. Drake said he didn't think those players would be held out of the tonight's contest, but the offense, under new quarterback direction, needs as many reps as it can get in practice.
Drake said quarterbacks David May and Preston Stanfill ran the offense fine down in Cortez, but Palisade's defense will be the best his team has seen to date.
"We can't sit back and wait for something good to happen," Drake said. "We have to create our own breaks and last week we were able to do that. We know (tonight) will be the toughest game we've had all season. We can't have any letdowns in any aspect of the ball game."
Junior quarterback Dustin Harris and senior running back Travis Bounds lead Palisade. Harris has thrown for 279 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for 140 yards and three touchdowns. Bounds has rushed for 163 yards on 19 carries, good for 8.5 yards a run. He has five touchdowns this season.
Steamboat's Zach Forcum returned to action at Cortez, accounting for 153 all-purpose yards and one touchdown. The senior running back provided another body and boosted the speed in Steamboat's backfield, helping to take pressure off May and Stanfill.
But Drake said his team will have to incorporate the pass into tonight's offensive schemes. Senior lineman Carter Dunham felt some passing would be necessary, but he wouldn't mind if the Sailors ran all night.
"We may have to try out a couple different things," Dunham said. "We may have to pass more, but I think all the guys are feeling confident we'll be able to run the ball."
And Steamboat has proven that when it has room to roam it is tough to beat, especially at home.