There’s two certainties when evaluating the football teams for Montrose and Palmer Ridge high schools: both feature some of the best rushing attacks in 4A, and both have stellar defenses.
It’s only fitting then that the Indians (5-0) and Bears (5-0) meet for the first time in 2021 both undefeated, having bulldozed through the first half of the schedule. The reward for such a start for Palmer Ridge? Remaining at No. 1 in the 4A rankings from CHSAA. The Indians’ prize? A climb to No. 4, after starting the season at No. 7.
But the rankings are just that — rankings, and postseason play is still over a month away. That doesn’t take away from what should be top-shelf football from two of the best in 4A when the Indians and Bears square off at Palmer Ridge High School at 6 p.m. on Friday.
“We’re gonna be ready to go. We’ve had this one circled all year,” Montrose head coach Brett Mertens said following last Friday’s 54-6 win over Grand Junction. “We’re gonna go down there and come out swinging and give them our best shot and see where we stand. They’re ranked No. 1 right now and if you want to be a championship contender, you’ve got to be able to beat those teams.”
There’s a reason the Indians have this one circled. They lost to Palmer Ridge last season 42-20, a bitter loss considering Montrose had a 14-7 halftime lead. The Bears scored 28 points in the third quarter, and the Indians couldn’t recover.
Montrose, naturally, is hoping for a different outcome on Friday. It’s a test against a top 4A opponent, and a chance for the Indians to show their might to the rest of the 4A class, and the state for that matter.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
“Every week it’s 1-0,” Montrose senior wide receiver Bridger Kurtz said of the team’s week-to-week approach. “That was our message. We didn’t look ahead to Palmer (Ridge) yet. We’re just excited to go down there and have an opportunity to play them. Everybody’s ready. Obviously last year was a tough game, we thought we could have won that game. We’re excited to go down there and try to get a win.”
A win won’t come easy, and it’s fair to expect the Indians will have to fight for every yard. The Bears have allowed 62 points through five games, which is aided by senior Gannon Arthur’s 5.5 sacks, good for sixth in all of 4A. You could argue their offense is even better, with sophomore Derek Hester ranking sixth in 4A with 1,188 passing yards, adding six touchdowns, and a rushing attack that averages 205 yards and is led by Connor Cook (342 yards on 62 carries) and Nathanial “Gator” Robinson (356 yards on 50 carries).
Hester’s talented receiving core deserves credit, too, with KC Fackerell, Anthony Costanzo and Ayden Snow all catching for more than 240 receiving yards so far this season.
That’ll mean busy work for Bode Greiner and the Montrose secondary, which has yet to face a passer of Hester’s caliber. But Montrose’s defensive line, which has been playing excellent in 2021, could alleviate some of that pressure — Ashden Oberg’s presence on the outside played key roles in the win over Durango and Fruita earlier this season, and when Montrose’s front seven tackles their opponents, they hit hard, largely due to the Indians’ ability to chase the football and their form tackling.
The Bears’ likely defensive scheme may be to stop Austin Griffin and Ethan Hartman, two of the Indians’ leading rushers. If needed, Mertens may ask quarterback Gage Wareham to fire some more passes downfield — Wareham threw the ball more in the win over Grand Junction, and established a growing connection with Kurtz.
The game could very well be offensively driven. Montrose has scored 200 points in 20 quarters, four less than Palmer Ridge. But either, or both, defenses could shine, — opponents have scored just 49 points against the Indians compared to 62 against the Bears.
The stage is set. Both teams are playing to remain undefeated, and gain a one-game lead in the 4A Southern 1 League. A loss shouldn’t define either team’s season, but a win for either could generate some waves.
What’s certain right now is that fans for both teams, and local prep fans across the state, should expect some fun football between two high-octane offenses vying for supremacy.