‘All on the line’ for Glenwood Springs in playoff football rematch with rival Rifle
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
The Glenwood Springs-Rifle sports rivalry goes way back for GSHS baseball coach and former Demons multi-sport student-athlete Eric Nieslanik.
“As a player, we always looked forward to it. It was a game you penciled in your calendar, whether it was football, basketball, baseball, whatever,” he said.
And, there were usually a few, shall we say, “extra-curricular” activities around those games … “all in good fun,” recalls Nieslanik, a 1990 GSHS graduate.
“The schools would always rally behind their teams, so it was just a different game when we played each other,” said Nieslanik, whose son, senior Wheatley Nieslanik, now plays both football and baseball for the Demons. “As time goes on, and especially getting to know a lot of the coaches from Rifle, it’s kind of neat how it’s come full circle for me.”
To see his son on the football field and baseball diamond now is special.
“It’s great to see him have a successful season, and be a part of something like this,” Nieslanik said, adding the crossover this spring between the football and baseball seasons has been an unusual challenge.
He won’t have a full baseball roster until the football season is done — ideally, after a state championship is won — and he canceled a Saturday doubleheader so he and his baseball players could attend the big football game.
That Glenwood-Rifle football rivalry takes to Glenwood’s Stubler Memorial Field again at high noon Saturday, when No. 1 Glenwood Springs (7-0) takes on No. 4 Rifle (5-2) in the semifinals of the Class 3A spring football playoffs.
On the line is the right to play for a state football championship in Pueblo next week.
In last week’s 3A quarterfinals, Rifle defeated No. 5 The Academy, 28-20, and Glenwood Springs walloped No. 8 Northfield, 56-13.
During the regular season, on April 16, Glenwood defeated Rifle 22-15 at Stubler Field. It was the Demons’ first win against Rifle since 2010, and it secured the 3A West title for Glenwood in this one-off spring season that came about when the Colorado High School Activities Association split football between the fall and spring season due to the pandemic.
“At this point, the kids are just excited to have another opportunity to play football together,” said third-year Demons head coach Patrick Engle. “This has been such a crazy year, and football has brought some normalcy back to Glenwood Springs High School.”
Rivalry games go way back for Glenwood alumni student-athletes Rick Chavez and Scott Bolitho, but it wasn’t just Rifle.
Chavez and Bolitho both played on the 1978 football team that won Glenwood Springs’ first-ever state football championship, a 39-12 victory over Valley for the AA crown. Two years later, after they had graduated, the Demons won it all again, 21-6 over Fountain.
“We had all gone to school together since we were little kids, so that (‘78 title) was pretty special,” Chavez said.
The championship games in those days were played on one of the team’s home fields, rather than a neutral site, and Glenwood got to host. A big snowstorm hit a few days before that late November game, and townsfolk came out to shovel the field to get it ready, he recalled.
As far as rivalries go, though, the Roaring Fork Rams of Carbondale were right up there with Rifle as one of the teams to beat, Chavez said.
“Rifle was a bigger rivalry in basketball during my time,” he said. “But I remember going down there my senior year of football after we’d won state, and there was stuff in the paper about how they were going to beat us.
“I think we beat them 33-0 that game,” Chavez said.
Bolitho was a senior on that ’78 championship team, and remembers coming back to watch the games for a few more years through the 1980 championship.
“Rifle was always one of those types of games where you threw out the records, because you knew they were going to come to play,” he said. “It’s always fun to go out and watch the games to this day.”
Due to the crossover seasons, however, this Saturday Bolitho said he will be up in Craig watching his son play baseball for Coal Ridge against Moffat County.
THE BIG GAME
“We know full well that beating a team a second time in the season is extremely difficult, so we’re trying to make sure that we are prepared and ready to go,” Engle said.
“We have a mantra that we’ve adopted, which is ‘seven more days,’” he said. “Nothing else is promised, other than we got seven extra days if we win.”
Engle expects another grind-fest on the ground and a tough defensive match-up between a pair of teams that have a similar attack.
In the regular-season matchup, Rifle held Glenwood to its second-fewest points in any game during the season (only Basalt held the Demons to fewer in a 21-14 Glenwood win on April 9).
Rifle also held Glenwood to fewer yards than any other opponent this year.
The Demons and Bears both rely heavily on the running game and stout defense, and Engle doesn’t expect anything different on Saturday.
At the same time, “I’m sure we’ll see a few new wrinkles from them, so we’re just trying to think about what they could potentially do differently,” he said.
The two teams are close to mirror images on the statistical front.
During this short-schedule spring season, Rifle and Glenwood both amassed nearly 2,000 team rushing yards, with 24 and 23 touchdowns, respectively.
Rifle senior Kaden Wolf has nearly 600 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, and junior teammate Toto Fletchall has 592 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing.
Glenwood is led by junior running back Blake Nieslanik, who has 901 yards on 87 carries and nine rushing touchdowns.
Senior running back Garret Dollahan has 586 yards on 94 carries and six touchdowns, and junior Ray Rosenmerkel has rushed for 226 yards on 30 carries with two touchdowns.
When the Demons do turn to the pass play, though, freshman quarterback Joaquin Sandoval is up to the task.
He has completed 34 of 48 passing attempts (71%), with just two interceptions this season.
Wheatley Nieslanik has been Sandoval’s primary target, reeling in 17 catches for 171 yards, averaging 10.1 yards per pass play, and scoring three receiving touchdowns. Cousin Blake Nieslanik has also been good for 120 yards receiving and four receiving touchdowns.
Extra points after the touchdown have been huge for the Demons, as well. Senior Tyler Thomas is 23 for 25 on point-after tries this season.
Dollahan isn’t taking anything for granted going into the semifinal game, and as one of the senior leaders he’s been busy making that point with the underclassmen on the team.
“The whole team knows that we just have to prepare and work even harder, because Rifle’s going to come out ready to play,” he said. “With this game, everything’s on the line and the winner gets to go to a state championship game.”
There’s more of a team focus this season, and the delayed season has reinforced that, Dollahan said.
“We all know something special can happen this year, so we’re really thinking about putting our team first … and focusing on the main goal that we have in common,” he said.
Sandoval is ready, willing and, with poise few freshmen carry, fully capable to help make it happen for this year’s senior class.
“It’s been really special for me, and it’s so fun to play with this group of guys,” said Sandoval, who moved from Basalt to Glenwood Springs Middle School his eighth-grade year and now finds himself the backfield leader for the Demons.
“Even though we beat this team already, this is a playoff game and the winner goes on,” Sandoval said. “We’ve got to be on our game and ready to play, and just do what we’ve got to do.”
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The winter prep season is upon us. But before we look toward this year, let’s flashback to last winter and recap what happened between the Aspen and Basalt teams. The 2020-21 winter seasons were overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, with shortened schedules and cancellations.