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Colorado high schools navigate a dire referee shortage during football season

Summit High School quarterback Hank Chabot hands the ball off to PJ Trujillo late in the fourth quarter of the Tigers' 56-0 win against the Skyview Wolverines on Sept. 3 at Tiger Stadium in Breckenridge.
John Hanson/Courtesy photo

FRISCO — On Sept. 3, Randy Schouten of Eagle-Vail and the other sports officials in his car departed a Coal Ridge football game and took part in a Garfield County Sheriff’s Office-sanctioned high-speed dash to Rifle High School.

With a police escort, Schouten and the referees drove 112 mph down Interstate 70 before speeding past traffic that had been stopped for them in the town of Rifle.

The reason? Schouten and the group of football officials were racing to get to Rifle High School for the 7:30 p.m. start of their second varsity football game of the night.

“My poor Honda CRV,” Schouten said. “We had four big guys in the car, and it wasn’t happy by the time we got to Rifle.”

Police officers blocking traffic and escorting referees from one high school to the next is just one example of how dire the officiating situation has become in Colorado for middle and high school sports.

“It’s almost to the point of getting desperate,” said Schouten, a 50-year-old referee of numerous sports who helps run the Colorado Sports Officials association.

Just how bad is the officiating situation in the mountains? In the football area Schouten covers — which ranges from Kremmling to the north, South Park to the south, and Aspen and Rifle to the west — he said he’s tasked with ensuring 14 schools have referees for sporting events. For those 14 schools, Schouten estimated he needs 35 referees to cover all football games each Friday night. He currently has only 23.

As a result, mountain schools like Summit are having to alter traditional schedules to accommodate. Two weeks from now, that’ll mean the Tigers’ big varsity football showdown versus Glenwood Springs won’t take place under the Friday night lights at Tiger Stadium. Rather, it’s been moved to Saturday afternoon.

“Friday night football games are going to go away,” official Chuck Nissen of the Colorado West Custom Sports association said. “Everybody loves Friday night lights, but if there’s no official, there’s no game.”

Schouten and Nissen said the state — and country, for that matter — has been staring down an officiating shortage for several years now. But the predicament has become worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two officials said the situation has boiled up to where it is now for several reasons:

  • Younger officials are not joining the ranks to replace an aging work demographic. Nissen, 62, said 60% of the officials are 50 or older.
  • Officials are experiencing more harassment from coaches, parents and even the players themselves. Last spring, the National Federation of State High School Associations conducted a survey that found 57% of departed referees said the reason they stopped officiating games was because of poor sportsmanship exhibited by parents and players.

Schouten, 50, and Nissen said poor sportsmanship, namely from parents and coaches, has a domino effect for young officials who are trying to improve at their newfound craft.

“I had two new basketball officials who both got into the business at a middle school in Eagle County, and they were learning and a coach really laid into them,” Schouten said. “So they both quit.”

And then there’s COVID-19. Schouten and Nissen were blunt that some officials quit the trade or sat out assignments last year because they did not want to wear mandated masks while refereeing games. They both said many officials, namely older referees, found the expectation of running up and down a court or field while wearing a mask to not be ideal considering their own physical fitness.

There are also referees who did not officiate, or haven’t returned to the craft, because they are worried about contracting COVID-19 during an assignment.

Summit High School Director of Athletics Travis Avery has had to work with officials to make the best of a bad situation, such as the reality that there is currently only one certified basketball official in Summit County. Avery said he can’t do things like schedule a swimming or diving meet at home unless he’s able to get one of the two officials in the mountain region to commit to a date. The athletic director also pointed to a recent junior varsity football game in Aspen where Summit and Aspen coaches had to officiate themselves.

Nissen’s sales pitch to anyone out there willing to don the white-and-black stripes?

“It’s for the kids to have the opportunity to participate and compete and have a good time,” he said.


AHS basketball coach Alex Schrempf bids adieu to the valley in his return home

Aspen High School boys basketball coach Alex Schrempf talks to the players during a December 2016 practice, his first season as the team’s head coach.
Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

When Alex Schrempf took over the Aspen High School boys basketball program in 2016, it was in a bit of disarray. Now, after his five-year run as head coach has ended, the Skiers are in position to be one of the top teams in the state this coming winter.

“To see it finally end up working in a big way was super, super fulfilling,” Schrempf said in a recent interview. “Sitting down and chatting with the boys … it was tough. I didn’t expect emotion, at least to the level that it was there in that room. But it was also tough because it’s a special thing we’ve had.”

Schrempf has stepped aside as the team’s coach to return to his roots in the Seattle area. He’s taken a job outside of sports, although has bigger dreams to again work in basketball full-time at some point down the line, especially if a professional team returns to Washington state.

The son of Detlef Schrempf, a former National Basketball Association all-star who was among the league’s top players in the late 1980s and ’90s, Alex Schrempf moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in late 2015 and has made a significant impact on basketball in the region over his time here.

“Everything I did on the court was always preceded by my pops. To come to a small town and work with people who didn’t really know and to still feel accepted, welcome and excited about it was a super fulfilling thing,” Schrempf said. “There are some incredible coaches in their respective sports in this little community. That common ground that brings us all out here of loving where we live and loving what we get to do and the stuff we have access to, then you find you can be surrounded by so much talent and so much experience, it’s a really tough thing to leave.”

Even after making the decision earlier this summer to return to Seattle before the fall season hit, Schrempf spent the following months helping coach a local club/AAU team through a rigorous slate of tournaments, mostly out of state. While the team had plenty of success on the court, Schrempf was most proud of the team’s makeup, which included players from numerous nearby high schools such as Aspen, Basalt, Roaring Fork, Glenwood Springs and Coal Ridge.

“For us to have a few kids that are really striving to play at the next level, to be able to put them in the most competitive atmosphere possible is a big part of their development,” Schrempf said. “It was really awesome. They developed at a huge rate and the main goal was the confidence. We want to expose you to as competitive an opponent as possible, so when you get back to the Western Slope of Colorado and you are tipping off against any school, you are going to look against the guy you are matched up against and realize you’ve gone against guys that can jump higher, run faster, shoot better, and you are not going to be afraid.”

Aspen High School boys basketball coach Alex Schrempf talks to players during a February 2017 game.
Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

That club team is just the latest — and final — piece of the puzzle in the Aspen High program’s rise under Schrempf these past five years. AHS had been a powerhouse program under former coach Steve Ketchum, who left following the 2013-14 season that ended with a 19-5 overall record. The squad dropped off rapidly after that, going 9-11 in 2014-15 and 6-14 in 2015-16 before Schrempf took over.

The Skiers had a decent 9-12 campaign in Schrempf’s first season, the 2016-17 school year, but dropped to only 4-16 a year later. AHS went 7-14 in 2018-19 before having a breakthrough campaign in 2019-20, going 14-10 overall and returning to the state tournament.

Last winter, during a pandemic-altered season, Aspen finished 13-2 overall and even beat Faith Christian in the Sweet 16 round of the Class 3A tournament before falling to No. 3 seed Sterling in the quarterfinals.

“Coach Ketchum had such an amazing, consistent, well-supported program, and just a couple years of absence and it felt like the culture of the sport was really gone,” Schrempf recalled. “It was a big thing for me to figure out. I don’t think I was ever in a position to say I was going to be here forever. I love it here, but I still need to see more places before I hopefully, maybe, settle back here.”

Aspen High School boys basketball coach Alex Schrempf yells instructions against Rifle on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018, inside the AHS gymnasium.
Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Who takes over for Schrempf isn’t yet known, as AHS is currently looking to find a new athletic director after Martha Richards recently returned to coaching golf with the University of Denver. In all likelihood the person who steps into the AD role, which is expected to be announced soon, will make the final call. Winter sports practices officially start Nov. 15.

Schrempf said he would like to see the hire made from within the program to keep the continuity and let a deep group of seniors — Aspen brings back nearly every significant piece of last year’s state quarterfinal team — finish what it started.

Both of Schrempf’s parents, as well as his brother, still live in the Seattle area, and he remains close with many of his childhood friends from where he was a prep standout before walking on for a brief stint at UCLA.

But his fondness for the Roaring Fork Valley — he lived specifically in Snowmass Village the past few years — isn’t something that will likely ever fade. An avid snowboarder, Schrempf was already planning visits to Aspen for this upcoming winter to both ride and catch a basketball game or two.

“I fell in love with being here. I fell in love with the people I got to surround myself with and the lifestyle I got to lead, so it was really tough to leave,” Schrempf said. “Part of me is still on the fence of, ‘I might be making a terrible decision.’ But at the same time I know I’m not and I’m super excited for the new challenge and it’s super reassuring to know I found happiness here and I know I can come back to it at anytime.”


Preps: Aspen High softball gives Basalt a scare before Longhorns rally for the win

The Basalt High School softball team hosts Aspen on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, in Basalt.
Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

For a couple of innings, it looked like the world was upside down. At least, it may have seemed that way for the Basalt High School softball team as it trailed big to Aspen on Tuesday afternoon.

The final outcome, however, was very familiar to the Longhorns, who went on to win 19-9 in their home opener over the Skiers. But it was more of a battle than they’re used to against their upvalley rivals.

“We definitely started out a little slow, but we were just trying some different girls at different positions,” Basalt coach Amy Bollock said. “These girls know that we haven’t lost to Aspen … having that little tradition of always winning, I think it helps.”

Not only has Basalt not lost to Aspen anytime recently, really nobody has. The Skiers have only a lone win over Gunnison in 2018 to their name in recent years. Prior to that, AHS hadn’t won since 2009.

But Aspen held a surprising 8-1 lead after an inning and a half over the Longhorns on Tuesday before Basalt turned into the aggressor and ended up winning the game after only five innings due to their 10-run advantage.

“It was great fun. The girls played well,” longtime Aspen coach Dave Fuentes said. “We had a couple of mental errors, a couple of physical errors that are going to happen, but it was fun to see them compete and fun to see a Basalt-Aspen game that close all the way through.”

Aspen, now 0-3 overall, will take the confidence into a long break as it doesn’t play again until seeing Meeker on Sept. 11, after experiential education.

Basalt, which improved to 1-4 overall, will look to build on its first win under Bollock, who is in her first season as head coach after spending the past two seasons as an assistant. The Longhorns have been one of Class 3A’s better squads in recent years, but with an incredibly small roster this season — they only had nine available players against Aspen — this could be somewhat of a rebuilding year for the program.

“It’s always good to get that first win and we’re excited to keep it going,” Bollock said. “The sophomore class is really big and there are a lot of girls that are brand new to the sport. But then we also have a core group of some of our upperclassmen that know the game really well and are working with the younger ones and trying to teach them the game as they go. It’s good. They are mixing really well.”

Basalt will play again Thursday in a home doubleheader with Eagle Valley.

Good day for soccer

The Basalt High School boys soccer team pulled off small stunner on Tuesday, going on the road to beat Delta 3-0 for its first win of the season. The Panthers, now 0-2, were among the favorites in the new-look Class 3A Western Slope League this fall.

Basalt had lost its season opener 5-2 on Friday to Crested Butte, the preseason No. 1-ranked team in Class 2A. But BHS bounced back in a big way on Tuesday to get to 1-1 on the season and stake a claim as a surprise contender in the WSL.

The Longhorns are slated to play a pair of games against Kent Denver and KIPP Denver Collegiate this weekend on the Front Range.

Aspen also recorded its first win on Tuesday after opening the season Saturday with a 1-0 double overtime loss to Crested Butte. The Skiers responded with a 4-1 win over Telluride, ranked No. 4 in 2A this week, in a game that was played in Grand Junction. Charlie Forster, Ansel Whitley, Sasha Forman and Tass Adams all scored goals for the Skiers.

Aspen (1-1) now goes on a long hiatus because of ex-ed. Tentatively, the Skiers’ next game is set for Sept. 11 at home against Steamboat Springs.

Basalt golf wins again

The Basalt High School boys golf team’s hot start to the season continued Tuesday when it won the Eagle Valley Championship at Gypsum Creek. The Longhorns shot a collective 230 to beat Vail Mountain by two strokes. Montrose was third with 237, while Aspen finished sixth with 242.

Eagle Valley’s Jake Crawford won the tournament, shooting even-par 72. Basalt freshman Jackson Stewart was second with 73, while Vail Mountain’s Henry Andrie and Basalt’s Garrett Exelbert tied for third with 76.

Aspen’s best scores came from seniors Will Stiller and Lucas Lee, who tied for ninth with 79. Nic Pevny, Aspen’s star senior and the defending state champion, did not compete.


Basalt High golf wins home tournament at RVR, continues strong early season run

The Basalt High School boys golf team poses with the team trophy after winning its home tournament on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, at River Valley Ranch in Carbondale.
Courtesy photo

Only a couple weeks removed from the start of practice, but with regionals already on the mind, Basalt High School boys golf coach Travis Stewart’s main goal is to manage the excitement, and possible growing expectations, of his team.

“It’s a tempered excitement. I think we’ve got a really good, diverse group of young men,” Stewart said. “They click together as a team. I think we are capable. The potential is there to shoot some great scores. I think between now and then the key is to keep them motivated, keep them focused.”

The Longhorns continued their torrid start to the fall by winning their home tournament, played Tuesday at River Valley Ranch in Carbondale. It was as close as a tournament gets, with four teams finishing within a stroke of each other. Basalt and Steamboat Springs each shot 227 to tie for first, with BHS getting the scorecard tiebreaker for the win. Eagle Valley and Aspen both shot 228 to finish in a tie for third.

“We are just extremely grateful to River Valley Ranch. They’ve been so generous with their facilities, their time, their energy,” Stewart said of getting to show off their home course. “It was a good day of golf. Our team this year is a really great blend of experience and youth. We’ve got a couple of seniors who are just steady.”

Vail Christian’s Connor Downey ran away with the individual title on Tuesday, shooting 7-under 65 — he shot 7-under-par on the front nine alone — to win by eight strokes over Eagle Valley’s Gunther Soltvedt and Basalt’s Kyle Murray, who both shot 73. Aspen’s Will Stiller and Nic Pevny both shot 74 to finish in a tie for fourth place, a day after the Skiers finished third as a team in their home tournament.

Murray, a BHS senior, seems to be the leader for the Longhorns this season, although the team is chock-full of players capable of shooting sub-80 rounds. Junior Hunter Oger shot 76 to finish 10th, while sophomore Alec Claassen, senior Braden Exelbert and sophomore Garrett Exelbert all shot 77 to finish tied for 11th. Freshman Jackson Stewart, the coach’s son who attends Roaring Fork High School, shot 78 to finish in 16th place.

Basalt High School senior Kyle Murray competes in the team’s home tournament on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, at River Valley Ranch in Carbondale.
Courtesy photo

Behind Stiller and Pevny, Aspen’s best round came from junior Sky Sosna, who shot 80 and finished tied for 20th place. A trio of AHS players in Sasha Forman, Carson Miller and Lucas Lee all shot 85 and tied for 28th.

“In particular, Kyle Murray today really had a great round. He’s been ready for that round and today was a great day for him to bust out and put it together,” Travis Stewart said. “Then Braden Exelbert is another senior in our top group that has really played consistently the last couple of rounds. It’s been great. We won two out of our first three tournaments with a second place in Montrose. We are just trying to build some momentum, learn and just get better every week if we can.”

This is the first season as head coach for Stewart, who took over for Joe Fries after he stepped aside. The BHS golf team is comprised of players from three different schools, with all of those mentioned but Jackson Stewart and Murray attending Glenwood Springs High School.

Stewart, who works in the construction materials business, hardly considered himself a top-tier candidate for the coaching job, but threw his name into the mix just in case nobody else stepped up.

Basalt High School freshman golfer Jackson Stewart, a Roaring Fork student, competes in the team’s home tournament on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, at River Valley Ranch in Carbondale.
Courtesy photo

“It’s what you do in small towns. When the town needs something, you step up, you help. I just hope I’m doing right by the community and these young men. It’s been a fun ride so far,” Stewart said. “It’s really cool when you can just root for the greater valley and not have to be so entrenched in your town or school. I got to say, this could not be a nicer group of young men.”

Nice, and talented, it seems. So far this fall, the Longhorns have proven capable of hanging with anyone and continue to rack up wins, including over their rival Aspen, which they’ve rarely bested in recent years.

Basalt is off until playing again early next week in Gypsum. The regional tournament remains scheduled for Sept. 20, hosted by Montezuma-Cortez, while the Class 3A state tournament is set for Oct. 4 and 5 at Spring Valley Golf Club in Elizabeth.


Aspen High golf team third in its lone home tournament, best among Class 3A

Aspen High School senior Nic Pevny watches the flight of his ball during the Skiers' home golf tournament on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, at Aspen Golf Club.
Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Nic Pevny was forced to hobble around the golf course on a bad ankle, all while trying to fine-tune his new swing. Still, the Aspen High School senior managed a 75 on Monday at Aspen Golf Club for a fifth-place finish in the AHS golf team’s lone home tournament of the fall.

“It’s feeling a lot better, so should be getting back to normal soon,” Pevny said of his new swing. “I just had a lot of movement in my lower body, on my back swing. So I was going to have to switch it up at some point and just thought this was a good time. … It’s coming together. It’s feeling good.”

Pevny, who is the defending Class 3A individual state champion, led the Skiers to a third-place team finish on Monday, which was best among the classification. Columbine, a 5A program, took top honors with a collective 224, followed in second by 4A Steamboat Springs at 226. Aspen shot 234.

Pevny’s 4-over-par was good for fifth, placing him four strokes behind tournament winner Qwenton Caldwell of Columbine. Steamboat’s Michael Dinapoli and Columbine’s Matai Naqica each shot 72 to tie for second, while Steamboat’s Colin Kagan shot 74 to finish in fourth, a shot ahead of Pevny. Montezuma-Cortez standout Thayer Plewe was sixth with 76.

“Today was tough. We were the top 3A school, but we would have liked to have been closer to Columbine,” Aspen coach Mary Woulfe said. “Those are very doable numbers for us, but we didn’t get there today.”

Aspen senior Will Stiller shot 77 to tie for seventh, second among the Skiers. AHS junior Sky Sosna shot 82 to finish in a tie for 12th overall, AHS senior Lucas Lee was 15th with 84, and AHS sophomore Sasha Forman was 21st with 88. The Skiers had numerous others play as well, with most of those scores not counting toward the overall team standings. Carson Miller’s 80 was the highlight.

“I’m feeling pretty good about the team,” Pevny said. “We’ve been playing all right, not bad. Will has been playing really good, which has been good. It’s been helping out a lot. I’ve gotten off to a slow start, but hopefully I can turn that around.”

The Skiers are building toward next month’s regional tournament, and then early October’s state tournament. Pevny, Sosna, Stiller and Lee have settled into the top four spots at the moment, though they have plenty of players within striking distance of being one of the four to make that regional squad.

“That bodes well for us in the long run that Lucas is learning how to dig deep. And we got some guys chomping at his heels that played out there today,” Woulfe said. “These young freshmen are learning that it’s not about what score they post right now. It’s about what they are learning, what can they take from every round of golf.”

Next up, the Skiers will play again Tuesday in Basalt’s home tournament at River Valley Ranch in Carbondale. The Longhorns did not compete Monday in Aspen.


Western Slope in desperate need of prep sports officials as fall seasons approach

A referee watches during the Aspen vs. Basalt football game at Aspen High School on April 16, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

A lot of seemingly random things are in short supply these days — including sports officials.

Western Slope sporting events at the middle school and high school level are not far from a scenario where officials are absent as the area is in desperate need of officials.

Colorado-West Custom Sports’ Chuck Nissen assigns local officials to sporting events via the business entity and said the number of officials tends to vary year to year. This year officials are especially difficult to come by and time is running out for individuals to get CHSAA trained and registered in order to be certified before the upcoming 2021-2022 seasons.

Nissen said there are a wide range of reasons why the area is currently seeing a shortage of game officials.

“One reason people stop officiating is age and the younger generations (are) not signing up to be an official,” Nissen said. “It truly takes a person with patience and tolerance of many things to be a good long-term official.”

The officiating jobs that Nissen is looking to fill range in pay from $22.50 to $63 a game with the promise of flexible scheduling and hours.

Nissen has 30-plus years of officiating experience. He started officiating basketball games for extra money right out of high school. Nissen had no aspiration in the beginning to make officiating a career, rather he decided to officiate in order to make some quick money.

Soon, however, that quick money turned into a full-blown career of officiating.

Nissen has officiated everything from peewee basketball, middle school, high school and even at the college level for the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

Bob Richardson officiates football, baseball and basketball, and has been an official for the Glenwood Springs area for the past 10 years. Richardson is a Roaring Fork High School alumnus who started officiating summer league baseball when he was just 11 years old and has enjoyed it ever since.

Richardson sees a clear explanation for the reason why there is a shortage of officials, not only on the Western Slope, but nationwide.

“There’s been several issues brought to the light in the last few years,” Richardson said. “One being the behaviors of athletes, parents and fans toward officials. When you stop having fun because you aren’t being treated well, you have people decide they don’t want to do it anymore.

“The lack of pay also contributes to the shortage in officials,” he added. “The state of Colorado is in the bottom five of states when it comes to pay for officials.”

Richardson and Nissen both look past the lack of pay and the unjust treatment at times. To them, the benefits of officiating outweigh the negatives.

“It’s a great group of people to be with. We have fun as officials presenting the best games we can,” Richardson said. “I also do it for the kids. It’s a fun progression to see a kid grow from a sixth grader to starting on varsity at the high school level to some furthering their careers beyond high school. It’s cool to be a part of that.”

If you or someone you know is interested in becoming an official, call 970-260-8522 or email cnissen@bresnan.net or bobrichardson_2@yahoo.com.


Steamboat High athletic director voted president of CHSAA Board of Directors

Luke DeWolfe, the Athletic Director at Steamboat Springs High School since 2009, was elected president of the board for the Colorado High School Activities Association and will serve over the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. (Shelby Reardon)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Over the past year, there have been a lot of major decisions made in regard to high school athletics and activities. Never before have the faces of the Colorado High School Activities Association and the board of directors been so well known.

Steamboat Springs Athletic Director Luke DeWolfe will lead the association and its members to a sense of normalcy, as he was voted president of the board of directors and will serve for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years.

“One big aspect is a real focus on relationship building and really fostering outreach and communication with the membership,” he said. “When you talk about getting back after the pandemic, that’s what we’re really after … just getting back to a point where people feel heard and there’s a high level of trust throughout the membership.”

Over the past year, the board and many other local, county and state boards have become more public as they made difficult decisions prompted by the pandemic. DeWolfe sees that as a positive thing, since it’s encouraged transparency from boards that may not have been before.

“It is a little tricky in the fact that, previously, boards had quite the scope in decision-making that they did prior to the pandemic,” DeWolfe said. “The pandemic forced us to make decisions and work through things quickly, where in the past, we relied on the membership to make decisions. A lot of my goals is to get back to empowering our membership and building bridges and that trust.”

DeWolfe has been on the board of directors for three years, has served on the CHSAA handbook committee and is the ski committee chair. He’s also served as the Western Slope League president; been a CHSAA Legislative Council member; and been on the committees for boys lacrosse, basketball and football, as well as seeding and appeals committees.

He’s been the athletic director at Steamboat Springs High School since 2009 and was the boys basketball head coach for seven years and still coaches the junior varsity boys team. He was a teacher and coach at Highland High School in Ault before coming to Steamboat.

As DeWolfe takes on the new role, he won’t drop any hours with the junior varsity boys basketball team or as athletic director. He’ll just be adding another thing to a plate full of roles that put the athletes and schools first.

“Luke has dedicated his career to providing extra curricular opportunities for students whether it be through sports or fine arts,” said Steamboat Springs School District Superintendent Brad Meeks. “He’s been involved heavily with CHSAA in representing the state and the Western Slope. With Luke’s dedication to the young people of the state of Colorado, he should do an outstanding job as president. I think his leadership and organizational skills will fit him well in this new endeavor. I’m proud of his appointment as president and will do what I can to help support him in his new role.”

DeWolfe is taking over the position as president currently held by Troy Baker, athletic director at Buena Vista High School.

“I’ve known Luke for 16 years as a coach, as an (athletic director) and a great leader in high school athletics and activities,” Baker said. “He’s just a good friend, man, leader. I don’t think there’s any better person.”


Rifle football beats The Classical Academy in spring 3A championship

Rifle celebrates after defeating TCA, 35-34, for the spring 3A state title on Saturday in Pueblo.
Chelsea Self/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Rifle High School senior Embrey Marantino had just finished the game with 201 yards and two touchdowns. Riding the bus back to Rifle, it took just two words for him to sum up how it felt to win the Class 3A state title.

Cloud Nine.

“Like, if you would’ve asked me two or three months ago if we would’ve even been in the playoffs, I would’ve said, ’Heck no,’” Marantino added. “I didn’t even think we were going to make it to the playoffs, much less win the state final. But a lot of us have been playing since we were 6 and 7 … we’ve been playing for a long time, and it’s just a very special brotherhood we share. We’re trying to prove how strong it is and just how amazing we’ve done and how much we can stick together, and that’s what really won it for us.”

It turned out to be an incredible turn of events for Rifle football.

After The Classical Academy offense came out swinging within minutes of the 3A title game beginning on Saturday in Pueblo, the Bears kept their composure, stayed the course and eventually nabbed a nail-biting 35-34 win.

“It was hard-fought,” Rifle senior Kaden Wolf, who cheered from the sidelines due to an injury suffered against Glenwood Springs, told KMTS Radio after the game. “We love our town and we love our community.”

“Without a doubt, they picked it up,” Wolf added about his fellow running backs, junior Toto Fletchall and Marantino. “They played harder than I’ve ever seen them play.”

Rifle Bear Toto Fletchall runs the ball passed the defending The Classical Academy Titan during Saturday's 3A spring state championship game at CSU Pubelo.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Down 20-13 going into the third quarter, the Bears would score two critical touchdowns over the first 14 minutes of the second half. In fact, the Titans wouldn’t gain back possession of the ball until nearly the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter.

Because Rifle opted to defer the opening kick after winning the coin toss, they took possession to start the second half and marched downfield with a cascade of clock-eating short runs via Marantino and Fletchall. They’d help Rifle get to the red zone before facing a critical fourth down and 4 yards to go.

Junior starting quarterback Trey Caldwell would keep the ball and rush for 7 yards to get the first down. The next play, Fletchall bashed it in for a short score.

But down 20-19, Rifle head coach Todd Casebier made the gutsy play to go for two points. The move paid off as Caldwell connected with junior Gavin Peterson, putting the Bears up 21-20 at 2:44 in the third quarter.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement, the very next play Casebier gave his special teams the nod to try an onside kick. With Rifle sophomore kicker Javier Diaz catching the Titans off guard, Rifle would recover it at midfield.

Rifle coach Todd Casebier talks to the offense on the sideline during Saturday's title game against TCA.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

“First of all, you practice those situations and you sell your team on the fact that not only are we going to go, we’ve got to execute it,” Casebier said. “Remember, they’re just another call in the game but you practice the situation and explain the importance of it to your team and ultimately they’ve got to execute it. It’s something that I’ve always believed in and done, and our coaching staff was outstanding.”

Not squandering the opportunity, Marantino would eventually run to the ball to the Titans’ 27-yard line. This would later set up Fletchall for another touchdown run within the 10-yard line. After a good point-after kick, Rifle sat on top of the Titans 28-20 at 10:13 in the fourth quarter.

“I didn’t know they were going to be that explosive,” Casebier said of The Classical Academy’s offense. “Knowing we had the ball coming out, I told the kids at halftime the plan was to get a good, solid kick return, go down and score, go for two and take the lead and then onside kick and recover and go score again. That’s exactly what we talked about and darned if our kids did exactly that.”

Casebier said his team’s second-half efforts truly turned the game around.

“Our defense started playing better,” he said. “TCA started to have to earn it. Coach (Tim) Place started making adjustments at halftime because you’re talking about an elite athlete, this (Cade) Palmer.”

Rifle Bear Trey Caldwell runs the ball through an empty pocket during Saturday's 3A spring state championship game against The Classical Academy at CSU Pueblo.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

But the Bears still had a long way to go. They had to somehow stop Titans running back Cade Palmer, who eventually amassed more than 300 yards in the game, and they still had to do something to stop all the other Titans’ offensive weapons.

The Titans took possession and marched all the way to Rifle’s 11-yard line. On third-and-3, Titans starting quarterback Sam Guilez would connect with receiver Jake Jennings at 8:28 left in regulation.

Down 28-26, the Titans would go for two via a hand-off to Palmer. The Division I college prospect, however, would be stopped short at the 1-yard line.

The next possession, the Bears would eventually face fourth-and-1 deep in their own zone. Marantino, however, would take a handoff and scamper 70 yards unscathed for the long touchdown run. With the good point after, the Bears would go up 35-26 at 6:15 in the fourth quarter.

But the Titans fought back. A few plays later on their possession, Palmer would blow past Rifle’s defense for a 46-yard touchdown run. This time, Titans coach Justin Rich gave his offense the nod to go for two. And this time, they’d connect on a heart-stopping flea-flicker. Yet Rifle remained on top with a very fragile 35-34 lead.

Then, on the very next possession, Rifle fumbled the ball over to The Classical Academy with less than four minutes to play. With victory literally less than half a football field away, however, Bears junior outside linebacker Josh Avila would wrap up Palmer on a run, strip the ball away and recover the loose ball.

Rifle celebrates after defeating TCA for the spring 3A state title in Pueblo on Saturday.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

“I can’t really remember,” Avila joked of the play while on the bus ride home. “(Palmer) ran to my side and our whole team was on him and we made a big collision and I saw his arm was flying there and I did my best to strip it. … But I couldn’t have done that without my teammates.”

Marantino had to hold back the emotion when he saw Avila make the biggest play of the game.

“When I saw that Josh stripped the ball, I could’ve fallen down and cried,” he said. “I was so close to doing that, I had to maintain myself from crying because that’s exactly what we needed. We all knew what we needed, but we didn’t say we needed to get the ball back, we needed to get the strip. We didn’t say any of that and Josh went out there and he stood up and he kicked butt. That’s exactly what we needed.”

The play would eventually solidify Rifle’s come-from-behind victory. Marantino would get one more first down on the next possession and Caldwell would kneel in victory formation.

It’s worth noting, Avila suffered an injury early in the season and was out until the second round of the playoffs — the win against Glenwood Springs.

“At the beginning of the season I tore my hamstring and I let that get the best of me, so I would be a jerk in class, not respect the teacher … ya know, I wasn’t being a good athlete,” he said. “But, lately, since I’ve been healed I’ve been overcoming it and my coach talked to me about it and told me I need to stop doing that and be a good person because that’s what this sport’s about. It builds character.”

Casebier also acknowledged Avila’s play and what it took to get there.

“For Josh, that was a huge play,” Casebier said. “Him and I have had our frustrations this year and I was so happy for him to make a play when it mattered because Josh is a good player and we haven’t been able to utilize him just because there’s been some things that have come up that he hasn’t done his part, and today he did. He got the job done today in the biggest moment of the game. He caused the fumble and he recovered it.”

Rifle celebrates after defeating TCA for the spring 3A state title in Pueblo on Saturday.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

In the first half, of course, The Classical Academy came out and punched the Bears hard in the mouth.

Palmer would draw first blood, scoring on a 27-yard dash into the end zone. It was a 54-second scoring drive.

Rifle would try to answer back, putting forth a 10-play drive. But after making it to the Titans’ 48-yard line, the Bears were forced to punt. This set up a 75-yard scoring drive for the Titans, with sophomore running back Ethan Aragundi scoring at 6:02 in the first quarter.

The play meant the Titans amassed 161 yards on their first nine plays on offense.

Down 14-0, however, Rifle began to chip away at the Titans’ defense. Casebier’s ground-and-pound offense slowly made its way downfield. Getting the ball to the Titans’ 36-yard line, junior quarterback Trey Caldwell would toss it to junior Gavin Peterson, who connected with sophomore receiver Kade Bishop for their first touchdown of the game.

“I think the way we run the ball, people have to load the box to stop our run game, and that’s what we needed to do,” Casebier said. “Gavin Peterson had a great throw to Kade Bishop for the first touchdown.”

With a good extra point, Rifle trailed 14-7 at 10:51 in the second quarter.

On their next possession, The Classical Academy would drive downfield to their 41-yard line via a nice Palmer run. On the next play, Palmer blew past Rifle’s secondary for a 59-yard touchdown run. After a failed 2-point conversion, the Titans were up 20-7 at 9:07 in the second quarter.

The Rifle Bears celebrate after defeating The Classical Academy 35-34 for the spring 3A state title in Pueblo on Saturday at CSU Pueblo.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Rifle, however, would answer right back. This time, after marching downfield with several successful runs made by Fletchall, Marantino would get in the scoring mix, bashing the ball past the plane for a 2-yard score.

Rifle would miss the extra point, but would now trail 20-13 at 3:05 left in the first half.

Arguably one of the biggest sequences of the game for Rifle came on the next Titans’ drive. The Classical Academy drove all the way to the Bears’ 36 yard-line. The Bears’ defense, however, would remain stout, stopping the Titans before they could score going into halftime.

Casebier praised his offense for also stepping up in lieu of Wolf’s absence.

“Our backs, Embrey Marantino, Toto Fletchall, Gavin Peterson, Trey Caldwell, everybody that carried the ball had to do the job because we lost one of our great players in Kaden Wolf,” he said. “And everybody had to pick up the slack, so Embrey was a warrior on both ends of the ball, but I thought Toto ran the ball extremely well.”

The win marks the fourth state title in Rifle’s history. The underdog Bears, seeded No. 4 at the start of the 3A playoffs, ended the season with a 7-2 overall record.

The odds stacked against them, the battle-tested Bears overcame two formidable opponents in order to hoist their hardware.

In the first round, the Bears hosted No. 5 The Academy and ended up nabbing a hard-fought 28-20 victory.

Then, taking a stab at redemption, Rifle scored in overtime to beat a No. 1-ranked, high-octane offense team in the Glenwood Springs Demons 20-17 at Stubler Field on May 8. The Demons, of course, previously upended the Bears 22-15 at home in the regular season on April 16.

The Bears’ solid start to the 2021 season was also thrown a curveball as Basalt handily bested them 38-7 on April 30.

Rifle Bears head coach Todd Casebier hugs and talks to Embrey Marantino after he ran the ball down the field for a touchdown during Saturday's 3A state title game against The Classical Academy.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Meanwhile, the once undefeated, No. 2-ranked Titans ended their season run with a 6-1 overall record — their only loss of the season courtesy of Rifle.

The Titans’ season has been nothing but dominant. Not only were they undefeated but their stout defense only gave up 19 points all regular season.

For Casebier, he’s just happy his kids got a chance to experience something so great.

“The first thing is, our kids got to play the great game of football all over this state and get back what we all took for granted with sports in general before COVID,” he said. “Our kids got to experience the great game of football together as a team and the highs and lows of that come from being able to play football, so I’m thankful we got the chance to do that.”

Asked how he’s going to celebrate the win, Avila kept it simple.

“Go home and go to sleep,” he said.


Preps: Steamboat drives home win over Aspen volleyball, AHS boys soccer falls

Steamboat’s Tya Drennan slams the ball over the net during a game against Aspen on Thursday.
Photo by Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On match point, the Steamboat Springs High School setter passed the ball to Tya Drennan. The Sailors sophomore had been hot all evening, and in the key moment, she did not disappoint. She rose off the floor, connected with the ball and found a hole in the Aspen lineup.

The kill earned Steamboat volleyball the 25-17 set win and the 3-0 victory over Aspen on Thursday night. The Sailors won the first two sets 25-13.

“I think it went amazing. We all played really well together,” said Sailors senior Jadyn Robson. “This year — the juniors and seniors — we have such a great connection, and Tya being a sophomore, she came up and played amazing. We just have a great connection, and it showed on the court.”

Drennan was spectacular. She had four kills and a number of other point-earning blows. She may have been the tallest on the floor, but her confidence despite her youth is what made her a force to be reckoned with.

The varsity newcomer was just one cog in an effortless Steamboat offense. Senior setter Emily Schneider distributed the ball evenly, and Marcada Baker and Robson were merciless at the net. Baker had nine kills, and Robson earned 13.

“I was really impressed with our ball control tonight,” said Steamboat head coach Wendy Hall. “When we did show a little nerves on passing, we were able to brush it off quickly and refocus. I was most impressed with our defensive coverage. I can’t think of one ball that dropped between two players.”

Aspen wasn’t quick on its feet. The Skiers were slow to react to tips and if a pass went any distance out of bounds, no one was able to get there. At least until the third set.

Steamboat accrued a hefty 11-3 lead early on.

“I would like a side-out, now,” Aspen coach Brittany Zanin said to her team.

The Skiers granted her request. They earned the next point, sending senior Megahnn Smiddy to the service line. A Steamboat error gave Aspen another point, and a gutsy dive from Smiddy sent the ball barely over the net, bringing the score to 11-6.

“This group is so good at working together,” Zanin said. “They turn it on just a little too late, is the problem. … What changes, is they get out of their own heads. They figure it out. They’re a young group, a very young group, and I have a senior setting that’s never set before. So all new things. All things considered, I’m happy with the fight.”

Steamboat put up a few more points, but Aspen stayed steady, keeping it close at 15-8. Moments later, a block from junior Bella Haneman made it 15-10.

Looking like an entirely different team, the Skiers rallied to earn the next point. A tip bopped the ball into the net, but a Skier was there to hit the ball upwards off the bounce. Aspen stayed calm and watched as Steamboat failed to control the hit. Point, Skiers.

After another Sailors error made it 15-12, Hall called timeout. She calmed her team, who then went on a 10-5 run to win the set.

“I think we feel confident,” Robson said. “Since today was such a good game, I think that we hold high standards for ourselves to succeed and do better.”

Aspen boys soccer falls to Coal Ridge

The Aspen High School boys soccer team lost 7-1 at home against Coal Ridge on Thursday in its season opener on the AHS turf. The Titans (2-0) led 4-1 at halftime in what was a relatively close game until late in the first half.

The Skiers (0-1) entered the season ranked No. 11 in Class 3A in the CHSAANow.com preseason poll. Coal Ridge entered ranked No. 10 in the state, while Roaring Fork is preseason No. 5.

Aspen next plays Tuesday at Basalt (0-1). The Longhorns opened their season Tuesday at Grand Junction, falling 9-0.

— Austin Colbert, The Aspen Times



Masks present another level of challenge for hearing-impaired Glenwood player

Graci Dietrich, right, follows along as Kyle Larson does sign language for her during a timeout in the middle of Tuesday night's game against the Rifle Bears.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Sign language has become a bit of a competitive strategy on the court for the Glenwood Springs High School girls basketball team in recent years.

One of the Demons’ key players, senior co-captain Graci Dietrich has severe hearing loss and relies on hand signs and lip-reading, rather than verbal communication, between her teammates and coaches.

Since her days attending and playing basketball at Glenwood Springs Middle School, Dietrich has also had her personal interpreter, Kyle Larson, in the classroom and on the sidelines with her making sure she understands those she interacts with on a daily basis.

Mask-wearing mandates during the past year due to the pandemic, however, have required a different degree of adaptation for Dietrich and her Demon teammates, since she is unable to read lips behind the masks.

That has made signing even more important.

“It could be seen as an obstacle with my hearing loss and everyone wearing masks,” Dietrich said after the Demons’ win over the rival Rifle Bears on Tuesday night. “But we’ve decided to use it more to our advantage. We can call plays with sign language without the other team knowing … it’s just kind of changed our game.”

Her Demon teammates have been up to the challenge, many of them learning to sign themselves so they can stay in the game plan.

Glenwood Springs Demon Maddie Moser dribbles the ball down the court during Tuesday night's rivalry game against the Rifle Bears.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Senior co-captain Maddie Moser has been a teammate and friend of Dietrich’s since middle school, and learned early on to use sign language. When they were in eighth grade, Moser and the other team members even wore earplugs during a game to get an idea what it was like for Dietrich.

“I’m the point guard, and she’s my post, so basically I was the one who started signing for her on the court,” Moser said.

“That relationship both on the court and off has taught me a lot of things I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise,” she said. “I didn’t even think how hard it could be for someone who can’t hear to play a sport until I met Graci. She was the one who taught me how to help others to help her, and I think that really brought all of us closer together.”

Adds Dietrich, “Our relationship is almost telepathic … sometimes it’s like we know what the other is going to do before we even do it.”

Kyle Larson watches on as Graci Dietrich runs down court during Tuesday night's game against the Rifle Bears.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Raising awareness

The extra challenge for those with hearing loss given mask requirements during COVID-19 has been an area of focus for Challenge Aspen.

The organization provides programs and support for people with a variety of disabilities, but hearing loss has been a unique one during the pandemic, said Garry Schalla, development and marketing director for Challenge Aspen.

“What we’ve really tried to do is just bring awareness for others in the community to this particular challenge for some people,” he said.

Not everyone who is hearing impaired learns to sign, and it’s unlikely those around them sign either, especially if it’s just a partial loss of hearing.

Mask-wearing has made it difficult for those who rely more on lip-reading and facial expression to understand what others are saying, Schalla said.

Masks also muffle the sound of people’s voices, and with social distancing protocols they don’t feel comfortable leaning in to hear someone, he explained.

On Wednesday, Challenge Aspen hosted an interview on Aspen Public Radio with NPR’s All Things Considered host and audio journalist, Mary Louise Kelly, who has hearing loss herself.

“She doesn’t view her hearing loss as ‘a handicap,’” Schalla said, and has always found ways to do her job and manage hearing loss.

“But now she’s adapting all over again,” he said of the extra challenge with mask-wearing. “One of the things that came out of the interview is that people can do just about anything if they set their minds to it … that’s something we see at Challenge Aspen everyday.”

Special bonds

Kyle Larson, right, signs for Glenwood Springs High School senior Graci Dietrich during halftime in the locker room during Tuesday night's game against the Rifle Bears.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

As for the relationship between Dietrich, Moser and the other Demons, it’s created a powerful bond.

Moser’s mother, Rhonda Moser, is the Glenwood girls coach, and learned sign language when she was in the U.S. Navy.

“I had always been fascinated in it when I was younger, but never really thought about learning it myself,” Maddie Moser said. “Once I met Graci, it became a whole new language for me.”

She and Dietrich made the varsity squad when they were sophomores, and since most of the team was older it was mostly up to them to help each other out.

“The other girls didn’t sign, and they would get a little frustrated with Graci at times,” Moser said. “Sometimes she would be in the game and I was on the bench, and she’d look over at me to find out what defense we were in. And then I’d do the same thing when I was in the game, because we all get lost out there sometimes.

“We’ve always been dependent on each other, and it kind of goes both ways.”

They describe this year’s team as more of a family unit, and the communication strategy is part of that.

“It’s not the only way we’ve become closer as a team, but it’s definitely another way we were able to bond,” Dietrich said.

Larson, in addition to using sign language to interpret for Dietrich, also uses a see-through plastic shield type of mask so he can still mouth the words and use facial expressions, which is extra helpful.

He met both Dietrich and Moser when they were in seventh grade, and said it’s been special watching the two grow up together.

“It’s been really great watching these two play sports and also have that friendship off the court,” Larson said. “And, it’s been great watching them grow as young ladies and as athletes and students.”

Kyle Larson signs for Glenwood Springs High School senior Graci Dietrich, foreground, during halftime in the locker room during Tuesday night's game against the Rifle Bears.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Dietrich adds that she was grateful just to be able to have a basketball season this winter, and softball in the fall, which she also enjoys.

That almost ended abruptly last week when the Glenwood varsity girls were required to quarantine after a player on an opposing team tested positive for COVID-19. Initially, they thought they would have to miss five of the last six games of the season, but the Colorado High School Activities Association agreed to reinstate the schedule after no one on the Demons team tested positive.

“When we went in quarantine it really showed us to be grateful for this, because you never know what you have until it’s gone. It made coming back to play even more exciting,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich recently committed to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State, and may try to play basketball there also.

Moser said she is looking at a smaller school in California at the moment, and also has hopes of maybe extending her basketball career.