The Colorado High School Activities Association’s Legislative Council voted on the football classifications for the 2018 and 2019 seasons on Thursday January 24th, making it official that Rifle will be moving from 3A to 2A for the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Here is what that means for Rifle Football fans.
Is This Just a Short-Term Move?
Possibly. Time will tell. The CHSAA makes classification decisions primarily on enrollment numbers, so an influx of students at RHS would likely move Rifle back up. But as new schools open on the front range to respond to its current population boom, the overall effect will be an increase in the number of schools ahead of Rifle in enrollment. This trend would likely keep pushing the Bears downward in the classification math.
The CHSAA could also decide at some point to add a new classification (6A) which has been requested by many in the state for years. This would have the unpredictable effect of completely realigning the entire classification system.
New Conference Foes
With the move to 2A gone are the traditional rivals from the 3A Western Slope League like Palisade and Glenwood Springs. Back are familiar teams like the Delta Panthers and the Moffat County Bulldogs. The Panthers and the Bulldogs each spent most of the last twenty years in the 3A West Slope league but preceded the Bears in moving down to 2A during the last 5 years.
Just because the Bears are moving down, does not mean that winning a conference championship will be easy. Delta won the last head-to-head match-up with the Bears before they left 3A, 35-21, in 2015. The Panthers then made a run to the Class 2A Semi-Finals in 2016. In 2017, Delta missed the playoffs but will be a tough contender for the Bears for the next two years.
Moffat County has been in 2A since 2014 and won a 2A Western Slope North league championship in 2015.
Basalt is another new league foe. The Bears have played the Longhorns in each of the past two seasons, with the Bears winning both match-ups. Basalt’s losses to Rifle did little to affect their success as the Longhorns went on to win the last two 2A Western Slope League Championships. Basalt made it to the 2A Quarterfinals in 2017, losing to eventual state champions Bayfield 41-0.
Rounding out the new league is Coal Ridge and Aspen. Coal Ridge narrowly missed the 2A playoffs in 2017 and Aspen placed second in the league, earning a post-season berth. The Skiers lost their 2017 first round playoff match-up to The Classical Academy 36-24.
Shorter Regular Season
The Bears will have a shorter regular season in 2018. Because of their smaller enrollment, 2A teams only play 9 regular season games as opposed to the ten game seasons played by 3A, 4A and 5A. The Bears will have 5 conference games and 4 non-conference games which are yet to be scheduled.
New Playoff Powerhouses
There is a new group of teams to watch out for. Gone are Pueblo East, Roosevelt, Silver Creek and Palmer Ridge. Say hello to Bayfield, La Junta, Faith Christian, Brush, Platte Valley, and Kent Denver. Bayfield is clearly the 2A team to beat. The Wolverines are the defending state champions and have won 2 out of the last 3 state titles. La Junta won the title in 2016 and were runners-up in 2017 and return a potent group of seniors. Kent Denver is always in the playoff hunt, last winning a title in 2012. The Brush Beetdiggers won it all in 2014 and Platte Valley is always in the mix, bringing home championships in 2007 and 2013. Faith Christian will have a new head coach in 2018, but they will be helming a very successful program. The Eagles have won three titles in the last fifteen years.
For many who have noted the recent success that Rifle has enjoyed in 3A, a move to 2A may seem unfair to the teams already in the division. But a keen observer of Colorado high school football can see that this move is just a small part of the general upheaval in the classification system generated from the major changes the CHSAA instituted two years ago. Before the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the CHSAA determined that the most fair way to classify teams was to attempt to ensure that each division had as close to an equal number of teams as possible. Before this decision, the 4A and 5A classifications held far more schools than the classifications below them. As the new system pushed larger schools down into 3A from 4A, teams smaller than Rifle went to 2A and Rifle quickly became one of the smallest 3A schools.
One team that clearly illustrates this phenomenon is Palisade. Going into the 2014/2015 classification cycle, Palisade was the largest school in 3A with 1050 students. After the realignment, Palisade still has around 1050 students, but now has 24 larger schools ahead of them in the 3A classification.
What all of this means is that Rifle has some very familiar company in the 2A ranks, and it is not just Delta and Moffat County. Former league rival Montezuma-Cortez is also in 2A (2A SouthWest League) and old playoff foes are also back in the picture. In the 90’s and 2000’s, the Bears 3A playoff competition was typically teams like Florence (2004, 2005 – now 1A), Woodland Park (2000), Sterling (2004), Elizabeth (2005, 2006), Alamosa (1995, 1999, 2006), Brush (1998), Valley (2001) and Englewood (1996). All of those team moved down out of 3A at some point during the last ten years.
What About Other Sports at RHS? Are They Moving Down Too?
Strangely enough, other sports at Rifle will remain 4A. This is primarily due to two factors. 1.) football redistributes the schools as evenly as possible throughout the classifications and; 2.) there are two extra classifications in football compared to all other sports. Football’s 6-Man and 8-Man classifications are unique to the sport, giving football a total of seven classifications.