Glenwood Springs High football eyes a second straight trip to the state playoffs

Two-way players key as roster size slims to 26

Rich Allen
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Blake Nieslanik, left, breaks a tackle for Glenwood Springs High School football in its scrimmage against Grand Junction Central at home on Aug. 20, 2021.
Rich Allen/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Glenwood Springs High School football came within yards of advancing to the Class 3A state finals only four months ago. A tightly contested contest with a bitter rival ended in an even more bitter fashion, sending a core group of seniors on their way and the Demons into the next era.

Reigning 3A coach of the year Pat Engle will face a new challenge this season. His 3A West Spring League champions made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. The Demons rode the wave to the semifinals but fell in a crushing overtime defeat to rival Rifle on May 8.

Three weeks later, when training for 2020-21 started back up, the Demons were without their class of 19 seniors that helped them get there. There wasn’t an inflow to match, either — fewer kids came out to play this season, resulting in the cut of the C team and only 26 players being rostered on varsity.

“This is a different team,” Engle said. “The identity is starting to form. What we’re starting to figure out is there is no playoff. All 26 of the kids that travel with us will play. Maybe it’s an Ironman thing.”

Across varsity and junior varsity, Engle said he has up to 13 seniors, 12 juniors and 10 sophomores, and MaxPreps lists 18 freshmen. It’s going to lead to a heavy dose of trial-by-fire for some of the team’s younger players and plenty of snaps on both sides of the ball for the Demons core.

Last season, then-junior Blake Nieslanik rushed for more than 1,000 yards while holding down an outside linebacker spot and earning a 3A first-team honor as the team’s lone two-way player. This season, he’ll be just one of many.

The now-senior said Engle’s coaching style and emphasis on strength will make that easier.

“You can condition and run just as much on the field, but if you’re not strong enough, then you’re not going to be able to play the whole football game,” Nieslanik said. “We haven’t always been a big weight-room team, but since coach Engle got here, we’ve been in the weight room three, four days a week. We’ve always had the athletes and the skill guys, but we haven’t always been strong enough.”

The Demons will need that strength not only for a 4A- and 5A-loaded preseason, but a bump back up to a traditional 3A alignment. In the spring season, a localized league was created in the fall/spring season shuffle. Glenwood Springs was the largest school represented and went 6-0 in conference play.

Back facing similar-sized schools, the Demons will have their work cut out for them with their reduced roster size. They will rely on their senior leadership group, including Nieslanik, middle linebacker Teddy Huttenhower, kicker/safety/receiver Ray Rosenmerkel, backup quarterback Evan Heyl and others to help guide the younger classes through the flames of the 3A schedule.

Heyl, the starter to begin last season under center, went down with an injury and saw then-freshman Joaquin Sandoval blossom in his absence. Now a sophomore, Sandoval beat out Heyl in camp to claim the first spot on the depth chart outright, while Heyl will slide to a receiver spot.

“The great thing about Evan is he’s one of our best receivers as well,” Engle said. “We have great confidence in both kids, but Joaquin is our starter.”

The young passer will run a double-wing offense that Engle said is “built by a caveman for a caveman,” to utilize Heyl, Rosenmerkel and other wide receivers to create open chances.

Sandoval is just one of many non-seniors who will have to take big strides forward for the Demons. Junior Alex Cruz will play nose guard for the first time and will be joined on the line by sophomore Jake Croissant. Marcos Aragon will play fullback and outside linebacker with fellow junior Cole Sherick.

The goal is to take steps forward with a team that has lost only two conference matches across the past three seasons, regardless of classification. Before their undefeated run through their temporary classification, they lost once each season to Palisade, who ran the table through both iterations of the 3A Western Slope league.

Following their scrimmage last Friday with Grand Junction Central High, Glenwood kicks off the season in earnest this Friday in Colorado Springs at 3A Harrison High School before rematching with Rifle on the road on Sept. 3. The Demons will host non-league opponents on three consecutive Fridays into October before kicking off league play at Summit on Oct. 8.