Rifle softball using former class’s leadership in bid to return to playoffs

Rich Allen
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Rifle High School softball coach Troy Phillips holds conference on the mound in the team's Sept. 14, 2021, home game against Palisade.
Rich Allen/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

This year’s senior class for Rifle High School softball saw both sides of the spectrum of upper-class leadership in its time.

In 2018, the Bears had what then-freshman Emma Poole called a “toxic environment.” They still went a dominant 17-8, but it didn’t hold a candle to what was to come in 2019, when they went 20-7 in what coach Troy Phillips called the best year in program history.The team played better, but more importantly had much stronger chemistry.

In 2021, the seniors are simply trying to replicate what brought the team — sourced from three different schools — together as a unit to win games.

“Just how they carried the team, you try to replicate it, but it will just never be the same,” Poole said. “That was leadership that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.”

Poole, outfielder Kaylie Stark and utility player Jade Croy are trying to get that cohesion to the same level. They don’t expect to reach it, but they’re hosting team dinners, making sure a large group of underclassmen feel welcome and bonding as a group from Rifle, Coal Ridge and Grand Valley.

For the out-of-town players, the daily trek adds somewhere around 45 minutes to their schedule. But the players aren’t strangers to each other, many having played against or with each other on competitive teams or in Little League. In some ways, it’s easier to come from different schools, says junior first baseman Hailey Worton.

“There’s not so much drama from the schools that’s connected with the team,” Worton said. “There’s some conflicts, but for the most part I think it’s beneficial.”

And it’s getting them back where they want to be. After an up-and-down start to the season, Rifle beat Montrose 12-2 and 17-5 on Saturday, improving to 9-6. Phillips said the front half of the Bears’ schedule was loaded with tough teams like Conifer, ThunderRidge and Broomfield, the latter two of which are Class 5A. Rifle also went 0-2 against league foe Palisade.

The back half of the schedule, following the wins against Montrose, gets significantly easier, Phillips said. In his eyes, the duals with Montrose were pivotal to securing enough standing in the rating percentage index (RPI), which weighs record and strength of schedule to determine playoff seeding. With a litany of sub-.500 and 3A teams remaining on the schedule, Rifle isn’t going to get much help in the strength-of-schedule department.

But Phillips thinks his team did well enough through the first-half gamut to make the 16-team cut. As of Monday, Rifle was ranked 21st in 4A in the state.

“I like our chances,” Phillips said.

It’s not the same as 2019, when Rifle entered the tournament as the 13th seed, but Rifle just wants to get back into the dance.

On the field, the Bears pride themselves on hitting and defense. Phillips said in his statistics book, the Bears had committed 18 fewer errors than their opponents entering the Montrose series.

They’ll include pitching as a strength on occasion as well, when the staff is throwing strikes. The pitching staff underscores what the team’s biggest issue to address going forward is: consistency.

“We’re just not the most consistent that we could possibly be,” Worton said. “After we win a game, sometimes we get kind of caught up in that win, and we don’t really focus on the next game.”

With six games remaining on the schedule, not much time is remaining to find that consistency. But the wins over Montrose give the team momentum for the home stretch, and the dream of a return to the playoffs is still alive.

If they make it, the leadership of Delaney Phillips — Troy’s daughter — Hannah Bodrogi and Zoey Loya will be a factor, two years after they graduated. And, for a team with five sophomores in its starting lineup, it may be a factor for years to come.