Driven hard into the Dutch Nogel Field grass along Ignacio’s sideline late in the third quarter of the previous week’s romp at non-conference Trinidad, junior John Riepel remained seated for a short minute before scooting fully out of bounds and allowing trainer Shelby Sangster to test and assess his right knee.
With senior Shawn Campbell still out due to a left knee injured in the Bobcats’ season-opening home rout of non-conference Carbondale Roaring Fork, one could sense the coaching staff’s concern – even if pertaining just to special-teams schemes, what with Campbell the on-paper No. 1 kicker and punter, and Riepel the top alternative at both positions.
One would have to therefore tip his hat to sophomore offensive/defensive lineman Wade Dunbar-Burger, who, as an emergency replacement for both, channeled both into a perfect squib kick which teammate Tyler Barnes recovered – all but polishing off a 40-6 mashing of the Miners.
“We’re such a small school and it’s so tough to pick and choose,” joked head coach Alfonso ‘Ponch’ Garcia. “It’s a team effort – you could include the managers! – and it’s working well.”
And virtually hitting now on all cylinders – not a good omen for Saturday’s out-of-state opponent, Whitehorse.
Receiving about the best news possible last week, Garcia and Co. got not only the go-ahead to suit up Riepel for battle against Farmington Navajo Prep, but also Campbell. Both would play crucial roles in helping the CHSAA Class 1A ’Cats pass their first true test of the fall 2021 campaign and outgun the NMAA Class 3A Eagles 53-52.
“It all starts with the line, like everybody says, and they played great,” Campbell said. “I felt great, you know … and the all-around involvement … the entire team played their hearts out.”
In addition to going 5-of-6 in point-after kicks, all but taking the guesswork out of what to do after a touchdown, Campbell batted away one Prep deep throw ending the first half, plus another with four seconds left in the game (sophomore Devante Montoya would then intercept NP’s last-ditch launch, and collected two catches for 90 yards.)
Both grabs went for scores – a 17-yard TD from senior Gabe Tucson with 5:19 left in the second quarter, and a 73-yard TD with 11:28 left in the third … with none other than Riepel throwing the football after catching Tucson’s backwards lateral.
That gave Riepel a receiving score (a 1-yarder from Tucson with 3:59 left in the first quarter), a kickoff-return score (65 yards, 7:21 left in the second) and a TD pass, and his 1-yard TD carry with 2:04 left in the contest not only completed a difficult quad-fecta of sorts, but also held up as the game-winning tally.
All told, Riepel unofficially rushed 13 times for 78 yards, snagged six receptions for another 80, and even added 96 yards on two kickoff returns – giving him more than 250 all-purpose yards in a game taking over 3½ hours to complete.
“Wherever you put him he’s going to give you 110% – and he was still hurt! He’s still got that banged knee from the Trinidad game,” Garcia said afterward, “but that kid’s got the heart of a lion. To me, he is … the all-around player.”
“It wasn’t too bad,” said Riepel, discussing his knee. “I just had to dig deep and push through it; my team needed me. We have heart, and it doesn’t matter how many players you have on the field – it all comes down to heart and how hard you want to play, how much you want to win.”
And with bulldozing back Barnes booking his fourth straight 100-yard rushing (unofficially running for 137 yards on 26 carries and 2 touchdowns) game in support of Tucson (completing 10-of-24 passes for 109 yards and 2 interceptions), plus a 5-2 advantage in defensive takeaways (including a six-point Charlie Pargin end-zone fumble recovery), the Bobcats improved to 4-0 overall.
“The heartbeat is one right now, and that’s how you can summarize the whole thing,” said Garcia. “And like I told my coaches a while ago, my joy is to hear them when they walk into the locker room with all those cheers.”
“I think it’s made it pretty serious,” Campbell said, regarding the impact of the program’s best start in years. “It’s shown a lot of these guys that, you know, we have a team this year and a good brotherhood. It starts with the basics and I … expect great things the rest of the season.”
Kickoff in Montezuma Creek, Utah, is set for 6 p.m. Saturday, with UHSAA ‘Freelance’-classified WHS – a replacement for slated Oct. 1 foe Dolores (Dolores, ironically, will now host the Raiders on that date) – still looking for their first points of the year.