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Bobcats beginning 2023 slate in Zero Week

Ignacio football hosts North Fork Saturday afternoon
An Ignacio High School Football helmet awaits usage last season in Farmington. IHS gets the 2023 campaign underway on Saturday at home versus Hotchkiss-based North Fork. (Joel Priest/Special to the Herald)

Holy moley frijoles!

That was Ignacio football head coach Alfonso ‘Ponch’ Garcia’s assessment Wednesday of the Bobcats’ first football foe in 2023: North Fork. NFHS is a combination of Western Slope forces – and former archrivals – Hotchkiss (now NFHS’ ‘home’ town) and Paonia, neither of which IHS had seen on the gridiron since 2015.

“You combine two powerhouses together, and it becomes a monster; they become even better, because they’re two schools with good athletes and surrounded by great coaching,” he said from inside his office. “And my first year (as head coach), we played both of those squads and … that was rough, when we only had 15 kids to their 30 or 40.”

When kickoff Saturday at IHS Field comes at 1 p.m., however, personnel numbers will visibly be more even.

“I think the big plus is that it’s our first game, and it’s their first game too. Beyond that, who knows?” Garcia said with a signature grin. “I saw their roster, and they’ve got 35 kids. With 24 kids we can manage … but they’re still a playoff team from last year, so the challenge’s definitely there. They’re bringing, like, 14 seniors, so that tells you what kind of team they’ve got – it’s kind of like Cortez last year when Cortez had, what, 17 or 18? That’s what makes a team, that leadership.”

Seeded 14th in last season’s 16-team CHSAA Class 1A State Playoffs, and owners of a 5-4 overall (4-2 Western Slope) record finalized by a 52-20 loss at 3-seed Wiggins, the Miners will have to deal with leadership Garcia deemed top-drawer.

Now-sophomore quarterback Zane Pontine prepares to take a snap during last season's Southern Peaks Conference game at Trinidad. The Bobcats will open their 2023 season on Saturday at home versus Hotchkiss-based North Fork. (Joel Priest/Special to the Herald)

“I tell you what, it’s probably the best we’ve had in years,” he said, noting that out of the two dozen ’Cats currently in camp, an average of 18-20 were present for 6 a.m. workouts all summer. “We have eight seniors, and that’s the most I’ve ever had. Having the will to work hard now, the leadership on their part … will be the ticket – or the question mark – to where we’ll go.”

Garcia said the obvious task of replacing graduated standout John Riepel, a threat to score offensively, defensively and on special teams, at first will be done by committee – starting with sophomore Zane Pontine, the on-paper incumbent at quarterback who had Riepel’s support as the 2022 Bobcats (5-3 overall, 3-2 1A Southern Peaks) went out downing Del Norte on Senior Night.

“He dialed it in and, like, had the team on his back – he was playing like a real quarterback,” Riepel said afterward, having spent most of the game taking Pontine’s handoffs and compiling a 146-yard, 3-TD rushing effort.

“He’s learning, still gets the jitters because he’s young, and when you have a senior leave you’re in a difficult spot,” said Garcia. “He’s got shoes to fill, but at the same time he’s getting comfortable with getting the ball to Devante, to Rylan, to Marcus.”

All now seniors, Devante Montoya, Rylan Maez and Marcus Maez will man crucial skill positions on both sides of the ball. Ignacio’s interior lines also should be solid, anchored by seniors including Elliott Hendren, Kyle Rima and Wade Dunbar. Junior Kendrick Nossaman could find himself again in the trenches if needed, but considering his track-and-field speed, will likely find himself as a ball-carrying option alongside senior Nate Hendren and sophomore Lincoln deKay.

“When you play against bigger kids, you’ve got to be a little faster and think a little quicker, so we’ve been practicing our fast offense. And when they come down here and play on our field when it’s hotter than hell, we can kind of wear them out a little!” Garcia said. “But hopefully we don’t wear ourselves out. We’re going to try to do a good (run/pass) balance.”

“Our backfield’s going to be young,” he noted, also pointing out that at present the ’Cats have just three juniors, “and the running back position’s going to be a tough one. Within this week they had a lot to learn.”

Pursuing a fourth straight winning season, IHS will have a Week 1 bye before traveling to Moab, Utah, Sept. 1 for a test against Grand County. The Red Devils struggled last fall, finishing 0-5 in 2A-South action and 2-9 overall.

Ignacio will then host recent-add Wingate out of Fort Wingate, New Mexico, on Sept. 8. Replacing IHS’ initial opponent, Navajo Prep of Farmington, the Bears went 5-5 but took second in NMAA District 5-3A with a 2-1 mark.

After another open week, the Bobcats will close nonconference work at home on Sept. 22 against 2A Montezuma-Cortez (8-4 in ’22).

Work in the 2023-renamed 1A South Central Conference will begin for IHS at home on Sept. 29 against Trinidad. The ’Cats will visit Center on Oct. 6 and Monte Vista on the Oct. 13, before Centauri and Del Norte journey to IHS Field on Oct. 20 and 27.

“Our conference is one of the toughest around; you’ve got two squads that are in the playoffs all the time, Centauri and Monte Vista. But if you look at our (nonconference) schedule, that sucker’s tough,” Garcia said. “So for us little guys, we’re just trying to get a little better and hopefully we can compete. That’s my goal for the kids: Step up to the challenge and compete! If we compete, how can we lose?”