Sailors host state champs

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In lieu of a slogan, Rifle's football coaches chose a bull's-eye as this year's team theme.

This summer, under the unrelenting sun, Rifle's players -- the defending Class 3A state champions -- discovered, literally, what it meant to play with a target on their backs, coach Damon Wells said.

"The T-shirts are yellow. The bull's-eyes on the back are dark blue," Wells said. "During those hot days, the players said they could all feel the middle of the bull's-eye on their back."

Perhaps no team wants to redeem a 2004 loss to Rifle more than Steamboat Springs, which was defeated by the Bears, 35-7. The Bears would go on to squeak into the playoffs as a No. 4 seed and make an unlikely run to the state title.

Since then, 21 Rifle players graduated, and longtime coach Darrel Gorham left the program. The turnover hasn't made a significant impact, Steamboat coach Aaron Finch said.

"Their linemen have great technique," Finch said. "Their defensive linemen get off the ball well. Their primary back looks like a real strong runner, and they have some speed at wing T. It looks like a Rifle team."

The Steamboat coaching staff is game-planning using film from Rifle's 14-6 loss to Harrison on Sept. 2, but the final score is a bit deceiving. The Bears had little trouble moving the ball. It was their seven turnovers that prevented them from sustaining drives. As a team, Rifle is averaging 5 yards a carry, Wells said, and it needed every one of those yards in a 7-6 defeat of Eagle Valley last week. With only one returning offensive starter, the slow start is somewhat understandable.

"Honestly, I was expecting that, and others may expect that, but we have a good group of kids, and we aren't making excuses about being young," Wells said. "We need to produce more points."

The Sailors saw their six-game win streak snapped Sept. 9 against Palisade, the best team Steamboat has faced this season. It also was the first time many of the Sailors had played against Palisade at Stocker Stadium -- home of Mesa State College.

"I think we had some stars in our eyes a little bit," Finch said. "It was a great learning experience. It's been a while since we lost a football game."

Rifle and Steamboat have proven they can run the football this season, and both expect teams to establish the run in tonight's game at Gardner Field. The outcome could come down to special teams and field position.

The Sailors are averaging 24 yards a return on kickoffs, and sophomore placekicker Ben DeLine has two field goals this season and a 53.5-yard kickoff average.

Junior Jace Bonner is averaging 37.6 yards a punt and has stuck five of his 11 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. For the most part, Steamboat has shined on special teams.

"We, as a team, are really focused on getting back to the playoffs," Finch said. "As Rifle showed last year as a fourth seed, anything can happen. We need to win some of these games against good teams."

The kickoff between Steam-boat and Rifle is at 7 p.m. today at Gardner Field in Steamboat. The game can be heard on KRMR 100.5 or 107.3 FM.

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