By Jim Williams

RFWJ Sports Editor

Photos by Derek Johnston

Basalt’s high school football season ended with a 17-6 loss to Delta on Nov. 23, but it could be more a beginning than a finish. They only graduate six seniors, and played a lot of sophomores and even some freshmen this fall. These Longhorns finished a strong 9-3, making it past the playoff quarterfinals for only the second time ever and the first time in 40 years. The Western Slope League rival Panthers now go on to face No. 2 Sterling for the state championship Nov. 30, on the campus of CSU-Pueblo.

The Longhorns were initially seen as a project in 2019, after a second-straight quarterfinal loss, 46-9, to 2018 2A runner-up Platte Valley. In 2017, Basalt had lost 41-0 in the quarters to eventual state champion Bayfield.

Rebuilding? Not so much, in the end. Said junior quarterback Matty Gillis, “It was a pretty good season. Everybody thought of it as a rebuilding year, but we made it farther than anyone expected.”

Indeed, these Longhorns, with a little less size than the last couple years, seemed to launch fully constructed. They ran over non-conference opponents Olathe, Battle Mountain, Pagosa Springs and Paonia by a combined 116 to 26, and rolled past league competitors Moffat County 49-7, and Coal Ridge 34-0. But the unbeaten ’Horns got knocked down a peg Oct. 18, the first time they saw Delta.

That’s when quarterback Nolan Bynum rifled a 40-yard touchdown strike to Hunter Hughes on the first play from scrimmage. Then Basalt fumbled on its first play, and Delta scored within seconds. It was over at 14-0, less than a minute into the game. Final score, 35-6. That was the one time all season where 12th-year head coach Carl Frerichs felt his staff got out-coached, and the team didn’t play well.

It wasn’t any easier the next week, when statewide No. 1 Rifle made its first appearance in Basalt. The ’Horns drove to a touchdown on their opening drive and missed the extra point, while the Bears also scored but made theirs. The score at halftime was 7-6.

Basalt took the lead on a field goal in the third quarter, 9-7, and largely held 2A’s top rusher, Levi Warfel, in check, though he averaged about 166 yards a game. But in the fourth period, the Basalt defense started to wear down, and Warfel began to gain his usual big chunks of real estate. He scored two TDs, rushed for 172 yards, and the Bears won 21-9. It was, however, Rifle’s lowest point total of the season at that point, their first time below 31.

Basalt finished on a high note, even as the mercury dropped, visiting rival Aspen. Despite a frigid struggle, Basalt escaped with a hard-fought 17-14 win, entering the postseason at 7-2.

The Longhorns were in the playoffs for a fourth straight year. Seeded ninth, they pulled a mild upset by eliminating the eighth-seeded Titans of The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs, 13-7 in the first round. But a bigger upset would be needed next, in a rematch with Rifle.

The Bears were still the tournament’s top seed. But Frerichs and his staff had seen several potential chinks in their armor. They were right – Basalt bounced back from a deficit to set up the same halftime score of 7-6, then when the amazing Mr. Warfel broke for his only big play that day, a 62-yard TD run that might’ve demoralized most opponents, Basalt struck right back. Rulbe Alvarado picked up a rolling kickoff and changed the whole mood of the game, sprinting 90 yards for a Basalt touchdown, to tie it at 14. The ’Horns stayed with the Bears through regulation, then in the second overtime, they scored, and intercepted Rifle’s last chance to do so.

Basalt knocked off the No. 1 team by a score of 21-14, holding the Bears to a new low score, in perhaps one of the biggest Longhorn wins ever. They made the semifinals for the first time since some hardy 1A predecessors lost 35-0 to eventual state champ Limon, back in 1979.

Similar, yet different

That led to last week’s Basalt-Delta contest, very different from the first, yet eerily similar. Winning the coin toss, this time Basalt chose to receive the opening kickoff, to keep the ball out of the Panthers’ hands and avoid a second fast Delta start. Good theory, but not well-executed. The Longhorns dropped the high, short kickoff, the Panthers got the ball anyway, and they scored first, although only a 26-yard field goal.

Then Delta made some unusual errors that seemed to open the door to the Longhorns. The Panthers false-started twice in a row, got called for holding, false-started again, Jose Castorena hurried a Bynum throw, and Wilson Maytham broke up another pass. Basalt looked good, but on the ensuing drive, Hughes picked off the first of five Longhorn passes the Panthers would intercept in the game. In the second quarter, Hughes caught the first of his two TD passes, making the score 10-0. Maytham was able to intercept Bynum twice in that quarter alone, but Basalt punted after each of those picks and went to halftime with that 10-0 deficit. Frerichs would say later, “I know when we watch film of this game it’s going to be hard, because we had some opportunities today – we just didn’t capitalize.”

The ’Horns got competitive with about 5½ minutes left in the third quarter, when Gillis launched a 79-yard touchdown completion to Alvarado. Despite a missed extra point, Basalt was still within striking distance and the score was 10-6. It was not for long… with secondary coverage on the Panther receivers a bit generous, Hughes caught his second touchdown from Bynum, and the extra point accounted for the final margin, 17-6. That sent the Panthers to this weekend’s title matchup with Sterling’s Tigers.

Frerichs said, “It’s definitely a hard one, a loss that’ll be tough to swallow. But I’m so proud of my kids, especially the seniors, for their leadership and all their hard work, which is why we had such a successful season.”

While dejected at the loss, his Longhorns were mostly pleased and proud, too. Gillis admits, “This wasn’t my best game. We were just trying to do everything we could to score, and there’s always going to be a cost to that.”

Senior receiver and defensive back Jackson Rapaport succinctly said, “Delta’s a good team. They outplayed us and took it from us – props to them.”

Speedster Alvarado said, “I’m just really proud of all my boys. We fought to the end. We didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but we had a heck of a season together, and I’m glad I’ve met these guys and played with them for almost our whole lives now. Next year, we’re going to pull all the way through to the end. We’re going to finish something we started today.”

According to senior center Dan Sherry, also one of the elected leaders of his class, “I’m just happy we got to come out here and make all these memories. It’s definitely been a wild ride.”

Senior all-state lineman Ernesto Lopez, a four-year Longhorn starter, said, “I can’t believe it’s done, but I know there’s no reason for me to be sad. These are tears of joy and sadness at the same time, because our senior class has accomplished so much, and I know we’re leaving Basalt in a good spot. We gave it our all. I’m always going to have this team to remember.”

And Gillis spoke for a lot of teammates and the Western Slope League, saying, “We played them twice, we worked hard, and now we’re just pulling for the Delta Panthers. Hopefully they can go all the way.”