Rankings wise the most important zero week game in either the 3A or 2A classifications is the Friday matchup between #6 Resurrection Christian and #7 Sterling. Both teams are coming off league championships and playoff appearances a year ago and based on their rankings to open the season, the goals are the same if not higher.
Up and down was the best way to describe the 2016 season for Sterling. After a rugged early season schedule and 0-3 start, the Tigers rolled to six straight wins and the Patriot East championship. They drilled Manitou Springs in their playoff opener but were no match for Bayfield in a 41-0 second round loss to the Wolverines.
After losing leading rusher Austin Burkholder to graduation, don’t be surprised if the Tigers rely on their passing game even more this season. Bodie Hume returns for his third year at quarterback and is coming off a 1600-yard season where he also tossed 16 touchdowns. The lanky signal caller is also the only returning player on the roster who rushed for more than 30 yards in 2016. Two of his top receivers also return to the Tiger lineup as Isaac Harris and Christian Rose look to improve on their junior numbers where each caught 31 passes for over 700 yards and seven touchdowns combined. Rose is also a factor on defense as he led the Tigers with 97 tackles a year ago. Sean Jay should also be watched on that side of the ball after recording 77 tackles, including 13 for loss, and five sacks last season.
Resurrection Christian is far from being set at the skill positions as they lost their starting quarterback, the top five rushers and top four receivers finished their eligibility last Fall. Brin Hayden will especially be a difficult player to replace as he led the Lions in passing (1,518 yards), rushing (434), tackles (138) and tackles for loss (12.5). The top returnee is likely Zane Zuhlke who finished 2016 with 110 tackles and six interceptions.
Resurrection Christian won last year’s zero-week contest 34-6 in Sterling limiting the Tigers to only 52 yards rushing and 180 through the air. The Cougars opened last season with ten straight wins before falling to Delta 23-8 in the state quarterfinals.
Kent Denver is the pre-season number one team in Class 2A and the Sun Devils open their season on Saturday expecting a big win over Prospect Ridge. The Miners played their first-ever varsity season a year ago and picked up a win despite not having a senior on their roster. With more experience, they will be better but likely not ready to challenge the Sun Devils who return four first-team all-state players from a club that reached the state championship game last November.
Traditional power Bayfield missed a visit to the state championship with a late one-point loss to eventual titlist La Junta (21-20) in the semifinals. Giving up only 85 points all season, the Wolverines defense was very stingy and they could easily be that way again this year. Returnees on that side of the ball include Hunter Killough, Cole Wood and Ryan Phelps. Killough finished with 121 tackles including 25 for loss. Phelps totaled 13 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and 81 overall tackles. Wood was second on the team with 11 sacks and made 13 other stops behind the line of scrimmage. The Wolverines also feature three players who picked off at least two passes a year ago.
The offense also has some weapons returning, most notably fullback David Hawkins. As a sophomore, he rumbled for 1,001 yards and 13 scores. His backfield mate, Keyon Pryor, also returns after contributing 327 yards rushing and 17 receptions. One question mark is at QB where Hayden Farmer looks to take over the starting role after throwing for 367 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore backup.
Bayfield opens the new season at home seeking revenge against San Juan UT. The Wolverines lost 19-0 a year amassing only 95 yards of offense in the early loss. San Juan is based in Blanding UT and won nine games a year ago. They’ve had a winning record each season since 2007 but lost their starting quarterback, top three rushers and four of their top five receivers from last year to graduation.
One game on the opening week schedule outside the top ten finds Alamosa on the road to Florence Friday night. Both teams are coming five hundred seasons (5-5) but each made the playoffs before falling in the first round. Florence was shutout at Bayfield (41-0) and Alamosa lost on the road to Classical Academy (33-14).
Alamosa’s running game was by committee a year ago as five players finished with between 275 and 475 yards. Two of them, Angelo Ramirez and Ben Wuckert, return and they helped the Moose generate 234 yards and two scores in last year’s 16-14 win over the Huskies. Florence looks to find a successor to Alec Lucero at quarterback. The senior was a three-year starter and ended his career with 904 yards passing and 1,216 yards rushing while totaling 19 touchdowns. Dixon Lawson could anchor both the offense and defense for the Huskies this year. He’s the top returning rusher (264 yards) and tackler (63).
Two games of note on the zero-week schedule feature a quality 2A team stepping into the 3A ranks for difficult road tests. #4 Delta heads to Durango and Basalt takes a trip to Rifle. Each 3A team collected a win in the games a year ago with Rifle outscoring Basalt 48-34 and Durango edging Delta 21-20.
Delta has won 45 games over the last five seasons and again reached the state semifinals before a loss to Kent Denver (21-14) ended their season. Offensively, the Panthers are in rebuild mode following the graduation of a very talented senior class. Underclassmen last year did not attempt a pass for Delta, ran the ball only two times all season and caught only three passes. New faces will have to step up for the Panthers to make another deep post-season run this year.
Defensively though the Panthers are in good hands with returnees Josh Reeder (76 tackles), Logan Church (71) and Jacob Wear (52). All finished in the top five on the team in tackles last season. Colton Galvin also returns after intercepting four passes as a junior.
Durango is coming off a 7-4 season where their only two losses against in-state competition came against three-time defending state champion Pueblo East (24-20) in the regular season and to Silver Creek (27-19) in the first round of the playoffs. The running back spot is very strong as both Dante Marcum (855 yards) and Max Hyson (504) will again be on the field. Gavin Mestas is also a big play threat as he caught a team best 32 passes including eight touchdowns. His question on who will throw the ball this year as Peyton Woolverton was lost to graduation after throwing for 1,474 yards as a senior.
Mestas, with six interceptions, also plays a major role on the defensive side. He gets plenty of help from Manessah Brockus (103) and Hyson (101) who were the top two tacklers on the team a year ago. Together they recorded 24 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Basalt finished 2016 with a 7-3 mark recording the most wins for the program since 2010. They also played well in a 27-20 first round playoff loss to D’Evelyn but replacing graduated QB Miles Levy will be a difficult chore. He threw for nearly 13-hundred yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior. Next up could be Trevor Reuss who completed 12 of 22 passes for 250 yards and three scores as a sophomore. The junior played well in the playoff loss to D’Evelyn when Levy went out with an injury.
Another key loss for the Longhorns is Alex Alberto. He led the team with 865 yards and eight touchdowns rushing a year ago but will not return to the program after his family moved to Texas. Replacing him could be a transfer in Noah Williams who moved to Basalt during the last school year.
Rifle is well known across the 3A classification for its big play running game but the Bears are looking for new players to step into those roles. They lost two 1,000-yard rushers to graduation as both Blaine Vance and Drake Montgomery finished their careers last season. Cameron Shepherd earned just 84 carries a year ago but managed 740 yards and nine scores so he should see more activity in 2017.
Coach Damon Wells’ runs a very good program that is consistently in the 3A playoff mix. The Bears have won at least eight games every year since 2010 including three seasons with at least 11.
Ranked third in Class 3A, Holy Family is the highest ranked team in the division to see game action this week. The Tigers have scored at least 500 points for three straight years and with Stone Samaras again healthy and back for another season, that number is well within reach again. Samaras threw for nearly 28-hundred yards and 33 touchdowns despite the missing the playoff loss to Pueblo East (41-21) that ended the Tigers season in the quarterfinals.
Talented receiver Joey Golter (51 catches – 21 TD’s) finished eligibility last November but leading receiver Kyle Helbig is back. He caught 56 passes for 810 yards and five touchdowns and could be primed for another big season. One question on offense though is at running back where the Tigers no longer have the services of Michael Zeman who gained 2,185 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior. Samaras was second on the team in rushing (202) last season and no other player still within the program totaled more than 33 yards on the ground a year ago.
Up first for the Tigers in their annual early season clash with Mountain View on Friday. The Mountain Lions won five games last season but did not qualify for the 4A playoff bracket. QB Peyton Mayes is their top returnee. He threw for 1,282 yards and 16 touchdowns and is also the top returning rusher (288 yards). Mayes though will be throwing to a completely new set of receivers as the top five pass catchers from last year graduated.
8th ranked Palisade also steps on the gridiron this week as they visit next door rival Grand Junction Central. We looked at the game in-depth in the zero-week preview for Classes 5A and 4A.