The Devils: Reloaded
It’s 6:26 in the evening on a blustery Wednesday at Hot Stuff Stadium in Gypsum, and the Eagle Valley football team is still running.
The sun has already punched out for the day, as well as most of the town’s locals who have gone home to dinner but, here, under the lights, in full pads, the Devils are gutting out cross-field gassers, two-and-a-half hours after they started practice.
It is a scene that goes mostly unnoticed, aside from a dad looking on, leaning up against the fence that surrounds the track, and the coaches who shout out encouragement from the side.
There is a general understanding though, shared by all who are here – a message which can be gleaned from the panting players who continue to push on, and the coaches who look on intently.
It’s the playoffs. You stick with what got you here. You work harder. You don’t complain.
“This is what counts right here,” says Devils senior quarterback Sean Bartlett, in between deep breaths. “This is why you play the whole season. To get to the playoffs, and were in it. There’s no giving up now.”
This Saturday, the Devils will host the No. 8 Buena Vista Demons in the opening round of the 2A playoffs – the third year in a row that Eagle Valley has opened the postseason on their homefield. Since 2001, the team has gone 22-2 in Western Slope play, secured two league titles (2001, 2002) and advanced as far as one game away from the state championship, a feat they accomplished last year, before falling to state runner-up Eaton, 51-6, in the semifinals.
For a talented, senior class of 14, it’s time once again to see where they stack up against the best in the state, and see if they can add to their legacy.
“This is when it starts getting exciting. Right now, there are only 16 teams in 2A who are practicing, and we’re one of them,” said Devils senior running back Jerad Schlegel. “It’s time to see how good we really are.”
The Devils will get that chance, when the Demon’s hit Hot Stuff on Saturday.
The weekend forecast calls for light rain and snow, but the action on the field should be anything but frigid.
Buena Vista has lost two of its past three games, including its finale last week against Manitou Springs to finish second in the Tri-Peaks League. Still, the Demons are a dangerous team and boast a defense that allows fewer than two touchdowns a game. They are paced by their workhorse running back Matt Cooper, who has tallied 971 yards rushing this season.
“They are a solid defensive team. They’ve only allowed 120 points all year long,” said Eagle Valley head coach John Ramunno. “We’re outmatched size-wise, so hopefully homefield advantage will help us out.”
The Demons are an impressively large team for the 2A level, with size up front on both offense and defense. Sophomore Nate Solder (6-foot-8, 220) and senior brother John (6-foot-8, 215 pounds), go both ways as tight ends and defensive ends for the Demons, and Luke Propernick (5-foot-11, 280 ) will be a handful from his defensive tackle spot.
For the first time in three years, the Devils are not the best team in the Western Slope – that title belongs to Roaring Fork, who humbled the Devils three weeks ago with a 48-12 regular season win and went on to secure the No. 1 playoff-seed.
That loss, as painful as it was for the players, may have been good in the long run, in terms of preparing for Buena Vista this weekend.
“It showed us what we needed to work on,” said Bartlett. “It made us go back and work that much harder.”
The Devils, who average 34.7 points a game, want to use their team speed to counteract the size advantage that Buena Vista brings in.
“They’ve got a lot of really big guys,” said Schlegel. “Were not quite as big, but I feel that we’re pretty fast. Hopefully, we keep them off balance with our misdirection and our abilities to run.”
Despite no three-peat, the 2003 version of the Devils is almost an exact blueprint of the last two-years teams. There are just different parts running the machine.
“Last year, we went to the semifinals, so that gave us three extra weeks after everybody else in our league was done,” said Schlegel. “We had three more weeks to keep preparing, keep getting in tune with one another, to make sure that we were clicking, and it carried over to this year.”
Ramunno feels the key to success on Saturday will to be balanced offensively.
“We have to be able to throw the ball at them,” said Ramunno. “We want to establish the run and use play-action pass. We want to get in situations where we’re caught in a second-and-short, and keep them guessing.”
On defense, the Devils want to shut down Buena Vista’s impressive running attack and apply pressure to sophomore quarterback Caleb Graff (6-foot-3, 180) on passing downs, so that he doesn’t have time to hit his big targets.
“When it’s a passing situation, we’ve got to get pressure on the quarterback,” said Ramunno. “The thing is for our kids is to get a pass rush and get to this kid before they get the ball to their receivers.”
As for the X-factors, such as turnovers, or weather, or injuries, the Devils feel that they are ready for whatever.
“We wouldn’t change a thing, depending on if the weather is bad,” said Ramunno. “Last year we played in a mud bowl, and we had a pretty big offensive day.”
Nate Peterson is a sports writer for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 608 or via email@example.com.