Story by Dan Mohrmann/CHSAANow.com
Photo by Ryan Mackley
Rifle football is definitely getting the Western Slope some attention. The Bears have been dominant in the 2019 season with an 8-0 record and a No. 3 ranking in the Class 2A RPI. But that's not what the Bears are after. Coach Damon Wells and his team have ambitions of making the playoffs and playing for as long as they can. Not because a state championship tops a list of stated goals in the locker room, but because they enjoy spending time together. Wells is in his second stint as the head coach at Rifle and he came back because of the joys that come with coaching and developing kids into men.
With a league title already wrapped up, the Bears just have one game ahead of them and are on track to end the regular season with an undefeated record. Then it's on to the postseason. That's where Wells really hopes his kids understand the team goals. It's not to win games for the sake of winning. It's to win games with the intent of getting seven more days to bond as a team. That goal alone is worthy of Wells' selection as this week's Broncos High School Coach of the Week. The Broncos High School Coach of the Week is selected in partnership with the Broncos and CHSCA.
Damon Wells bio
Years as head coach: 13 (116-35)
Years at Rifle: 13 (116-35, 8-0 this season)
Previous stops: Cyprus Lake (Fla.) assistant (1996, 1998-99), North Fort Myers (Fla.) assistant (1997), Rifle running backs coach (2000-02), Rifle defensive coordinator (2003-04, 2009), Rifle head coach (2005-07, 2010-present).
Dan Mohrmann: Why did you initially get into coaching?
Damon Wells: I think because of the impact it had on my own life. I saw how profoundly powerful of an impact you can have, and that's what happened for me. I owe so much to the guys, all the guys all along the way that coached me and I hoped that I could in any way replicate that.
Mohrmann: From your player's perspective, what do you think it's like to be coached by you?
Wells: What a great question. I don't know. I honestly don't know. Hopefully they would agree that we have high standards. I don't know that they would say it's any different than being coached by anybody else. I'm sure everybody's heart is in it for all the right reasons. And everybody aspires to build better men. So it's probably the same as everybody else.
Mohrmann: What are some of your favorite memories when it comes to coaching?
Wells: I think it's seeing kids get experiences that they couldn't have had otherwise if they wouldn't have been a part of this particular group. Like last year, the Broncos were gracious enough to let us practice in their facility before the quarterfinals. I really don't think it helped us in the game. It probably hurt us, but whatever. It was such a cool experience for those kids. I think one of the things I'm most proud of is in 2014 we won the academic state championship and played for the state championship on the field. I think that's pretty neat.
Mohrmann: You've had a heck of a year. What's been the main driving force behind the Bears' success this season?
Wells: I don't know that this year has been very much different than past years. In the past decade we've gone 78-9 in the regular season. So this year has been great and all, but it's kind of what we've been doing. We're just blessed. I can say that here in Rifle we are absolutely blessed to have kids that are willing to go above and beyond with what they do before school, after school, over the summer. They literally do everything we ask them to do.
Mohrmann: For the last four years or so, 2A has been dominated pretty much by Bayfield and LA Junta. With you guys having a much better year than them in 2019, is that part of the reason why people are paying attention to what's going on in Rifle this year?
Wells: No, I don't think so. It doesn't feel any different for us. We've had an incredibly successful run so what people talk about is the least of my concerns.
Mohrmann: Let's go back to that game against Delta. Up until a few weeks ago they hadn't given up a whole lot of points this year and you guys were able to put up 47. What does that say about the talent level that you have at Rifle and the challenges that these boys are able to rise to?
Wells: I think so much about high school football has to deal with match-ups. I think when we get in the business of rankings and RPI and stuff like that, those are all well and good, but match-ups matter so much. And we had a good night. Part of the reason why it was such a good night was because Delta's coached so well and their kids are so tough and we were able to make some things happen.
Mohrmann: You've wrapped up a league title I think at this point. When you're in a situation like that, aside from maybe playoff seeding ranking, RPI, how do you make sure that the boys stay up heading into this week to cap off your regular season?
Wells: You know, we believe that culture beats strategy every time. And I think that it has to do with our culture. I think that our culture is something that took a long time to establish over the course of the last decade. Like I mentioned, I think our history won't permit our kids to slack off. And that doesn't mean we're going to win all the time. The other people practice too. They lift weights as well. So I think our culture definitely helps in that capacity.
Mohrmann: How much fun has 2A football been on the west side of Vail Pass? From my perspective as a Front Range guy, it looks like you guys had a lot of fun out there.
Wells: Absolutely. And it's funny that people talk and I think people made a bigger deal about us going from 3A to 2A than we did. First, we were one of the smallest 3A schools for six straight years and went to two state finals during that time. And when we finally did move down to 2A, it's half of what the old 3A Western Slope League used to be with Moffat County and Delta. So it's really more normal than anything else.
Mohrmann: You know you're playoff bound, so how does your mentality shift after this week and getting these boys ready for "win or go home" as opposed to just bettering your overall record or your league record?
Wells: We talk all season long about trying to get seven more days together. We don't necessarily want to make the playoffs because we want to make this glorious run or to say we did or to get a cool tee shirt. We just like spending time with our boys so much and working and practicing and being immersed in our culture that we don't want it to end. That's the beauty of making the playoffs.
Mohrmann: That seems like a great mentality to have and maybe slightly different from what I hear on a week-to-week basis, is that something that really helps drive the success of that team?
Wells: It's very important to us, and we tell them we do not focus on winning championships because when you win you get a cool t-shirt and that's about the end of it. All the memories come from when you're in it and during the journey. So we care way more about the journey than winning the league.