By Jim Williams
RFWJ Sports Editor
It’s “that” time of year, as the other fall high school sports seasons have wrapped up, and football moves ahead to conclude in the spotlight on its own.
The Basalt Longhorns are moving ahead on their own, representing the Roaring Fork Valley in the post-season playoffs for a fourth straight year. The ’Horns travel to Colorado Springs to take on The Classical Academy in a game Nov. 9 that begins at 3 p.m. Play-by-play coverage is available on Always Mountain Time Radio’s coloradosportsnetwork.com beginning at 2:45 p.m.
Since winning their league in 2016 for the first time in 32 years, Basalt football has established itself as a force in the 2A Western Slope League and around the state, becoming a fixture in the post-season mix. This year, the Longhorns would like to move beyond the quarterfinals, where they’ve stopped each of the last two seasons.
In that initial appearance three years ago, eighth-seeded Basalt hosted #9 D’Evelyn of Denver, and got knocked out 27-20 at home. Senior quarterback Miles Levy was injured late in the first half, and his stepbrother Trevor Reuss, only a sophomore then had to finish the game. It’s one the Longhorns felt they could have won. The Jags departed the tournament the following week, losing to eventual state champion La Junta.
The year 2017 brought new uniforms and a deeper trip into the playoffs for Basalt. The former all-black home look was replaced by gold helmets and pants and new purple home jerseys, with white jerseys for the road. The Longhorns, seeded sixth that year, hosted #11 Salida and dispatched the Spartans, 28-22. Basalt visited traditional power Bayfield next, and were handed a decisive 41-0 ticket home by the Wolverines, who went on to win the title.
A year ago, Basalt finished its regular season 8–1, losing only to Rifle in the Bears’ first year as a 2A program. The third-seeded ’Horns hosted D’Evelyn again, this time ending the Jaguars’ season on the Field of Dreams, 26-14. But the #6 Platte Valley Broncos, who’d handily eliminated Delta, came to the Valley the next week, and behind massive and speedy running back Ernesto Rios, vanquished the Longhorns 46-9. Seventh-seed Rifle was knocked out the same day by #2 Resurrection Christian, and Platte Valley would go on to eliminate Resurrection and finish second in the class to champion La Junta.
This season, Rifle has been #1-ranked all season, though the Longhorns and some other squads have been higher in the RPI, or Ratings Percentage Index, standings. RPI calculates team strength through looking at a schedule and seeing how good that team’s opponents were expected to be to start, then how the team performs against them, how those opponents do, and also how good the opponents’ opponents are. The last few years, RPI has been the backbone of Colorado’s football seedings.
Basalt goes into Saturday’s game with a pair of strong performances that closed the regular campaign, including holding Rifle to its lowest point total of the season in a 21-9 loss, and slogging through icy temperatures to edge arch-rival Aspen 17-14 on Nov. 1.
Head Coach Carl Frerichs was pleased by the team’s effort against Rifle, after not seeing the usual spark from his club in the 35-6 loss to Delta a week before. Frerichs says, “That’s all that really matters to me, that effort and want-to, and I felt our kids really played their tails off and their hearts out. Every coach can say, ‘well, we should’ve won,’ but this was a real factor.
“We had so many opportunities to get up even more. I think if we’d capitalized on one or two more of those opportunities, we’d definitely have gotten out of there with a W.” Rifle had shut Aspen out 49-0 the week before getting challenged by Basalt.
Recapping Basalt vs. Aspen
The Longhorns started putting points up with about two-and-a-half minutes gone in the second quarter, following a scoreless opening period. Quarterback Matty Gillis completed a 38-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jackson Rapaport, who took a single sideways step to elude the Skier defender after catching the ball, then walked into the end zone.
Frerichs says, “Our first touchdown to Jackson was a gigantic play in the game, with one-on-one coverage out there. They put Jack Seamans on Jackson all night, their best defensive back. But Jackson, he’s a really tough matchup. He’s so tall (6’3”), and not only is he tall, he’s really fast.”
As is expected in a rivalry as hot as this one despite the 20-degree chill, Aspen bounced right back. Less than four minutes later, after having been goal-to-go inside the 10-yard line but then taking losses back to the Basalt 23, Skier quarterback Tyler Ward countered with a strike to receiver Dillon Hendrickson to make the score 7-6. The two-point conversion failed, and not taking a one-point lead or at least tying the Longhorns proved key later in the game.
Another two-point key came up on the Skiers’ first possession of the second half, after the Longhorns couldn’t do anything with the third-quarter kickoff. A strong Basalt punt had backed Aspen up to start the series from their own 6-yard-line. Following a first-down incompletion, Skier quarterback Tyler Ward retreated into the end zone to throw his next pass, but couldn’t find a receiver.
As he was in the grasp of Basalt’s Lander McNamee and Ernesto Lopez, Ward just heaved the ball, at no receiver in that direction. Since he’d thrown from the end zone and there were no yards to mark off, the play resulted in a safety against Aspen, scoring two points for the Longhorns, making it 9-6 Basalt. Frerichs noted, “That safety was really the difference in the game, since we only won 17-14. A play like that is always huge, but especially in a game like that, where the teams are so closely matched and talented.”
The team that gets a safety scored against almost always gets demoralized and finds it hard to come back, especially since you have to kick the ball away, inviting the other team to score more. But Basalt couldn’t capitalize on its free kick opportunity, either, and the score remained the same into the fourth quarter.
Then, with about 11 minutes remaining in the game, the Skiers struck back, Ward lofting a nice 15-yard pass to Jonathan Woodrow on fourth down, completing it despite double coverage on Woodrow by the Longhorn defenders. The two-point conversion, another pass to Woodrow on the opposite side of the field, made the score 14-9 Aspen.
Basalt, suddenly looking at a potential three-game losing streak to end the regular season, had to bounce back again as the night only got colder. The ’Horns kept their drive going by gaining a 1st down on a pass to tight end Tristan Johnston, but the Aspen defense clocked Johnston hard enough that he suffered a major shoulder separation. While Johnston could walk off the field, he had surgery Wednesday to repair the shoulder and won’t be available for the playoffs. He might be able to come back for a big chunk of the basketball season.
Johnston’s teammates were able to continue the drive, on several good runs from Rulbe Alvarado and passes by Gillis. Things looked bad when Rapaport took a big loss and fumbled to Aspen, but the Skiers had to punt back to the Longhorns. Tension kept rising, and a Skiers pass interference call was a major Basalt break. Next play, Gillis went back to Jackson, for a 25-yard completion that put the Longhorns on the Aspen 18-yard-line.
Gavin Webb churned to a first and goal at the Aspen 7-yard line, then even closer to pay dirt at the 3. Webb got close to the end zone, but it wasn’t enough. Then on their final opportunity with two minutes remaining, the 6-foot, 200-pound junior Gillis called his own number, and behind the blocking of Lopez and Ubaldo Bogarin, punched it in from the 1, to make the score 15-14. Basalt went for 2 with a handoff to Alvarado, who went in untouched for the conversion, 17-14.
Gillis had gained several Longhorn first downs on quarterback sneaks throughout the game, so Frerichs knew it would work, but didn’t realize it would be so big.
“To win the game on a QB sneak, it was a lot of fun for high school football – that’s why these guys love playing the game, and we love coaching it. And I’ve been saying all season about Matty, I think sometimes he gets underrated by teams. He’s a legit 6 feet and 190 pounds, a big strong physical kid,” Frerichs said.
Defense was then critical to the Longhorns as they thwarted a final charge by the Aspen Skiers, whose season was over at 4–5. Basalt finished the regular season with a record of 7–2.
Road trip to the Springs
That brings us to this week, when ninth seed Basalt visits #8 The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs.
Frerichs says, “I think it’s a school record for going four years in a row to the playoffs. As long as you get in, we feel like we’re a great team. I’m not concerned, whomever we play, as long as we focus on ourselves. The last two years, we had a higher seed, but the teams we played in the second round (Bayfield in 2017 and Platte Valley last year) were probably the best teams in the state, and they were not the number 1 seed, so you really don’t know until you get in. We feel really good about our matchup.”
Of The Classical Academy’s Titans, Frerichs notes, “we’ve never played them, so it’ll be fun to go down there and take them on. We’re happy the Carlson brothers are no longer there – one’s in the NFL, one’s at Auburn – they’ve had some amazing kickers there. They do great stuff, just like all these teams in the playoffs. We know we’re going to have our hands full with a lot of things, but we also know that if our kids come out ready to play, we have a great opportunity to keep playing another week.”
The Titans do have a pair of Palmer brothers who get a lot done for them, though. Cade rushes for more than 137 yards a game, and Cole makes nearly 12 tackles every contest, and intercepts a pass or two along the way. Frerichs has watched considerable video of the Titans, and finds, “They run the spread offense, and I think historically they’ve been more even between run and pass, but this year they’re definitely run-happy, and they want to get Cade the ball a lot. He’s actually very similar to Cole Dombrowski and Gavin Webb for us, and they’re all sophomores. Our guys are just as strong, just as athletic. Seems like he’s a great athlete, shows some breakaway speed.”
One of the big things for the ’Horns is Dombrowski’s ability to pin teams like Aspen back deep on punts, and Frerichs sees a lot of the same in Hayden Cooper, who’s had a 75-yard punt this year, and punches most kickoffs through the end zone.
The winner of Saturday’s game faces the winner of the Rifle-Englewood contest on Nov. 16, and Frerichs believes his squad is probably the one the top-seeded Bears don’t want to see again, given the Longhorn effort of a couple weeks back. If a rematch happens, it’ll be at Basalt.