Football: Rivera, Warriors get physical in turning around program

Joshua Buck/Times-Call
Frederick linebacker/fullback KC Rivera helps lead the physical approach the Warriors are using to win games this season.

FREDERICK — KC Rivera wanted to be a Skyline Falcon.

Despite growing up in Frederick and attending elementary and middle school there, he’d watched as his two older brothers had played at SHS, and he knew the coaches at the Longmont school. But after attending Skyline as a freshman, Rivera couldn’t help feeling drawn back to his hometown.

“Once I got there I knew that my family was over here,” the junior said this week. “All my teammates that I grew up playing with were over here, and I fit better over here.”

After transferring to FHS as a sophomore, the middle linebacker is now the team’s leading tackler. And he is the ringleader of the Warriors’ physical team persona that has them playing deeper into the season than anyone expected when the Class 3A playoffs began.

Sixteenth-seeded Frederick (9-3) plays at No. 5 Windsor (11-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Wizards’ Dudley Field.

Rivera enters the game averaging 14 tackles per outing, and he’s got a team-best three interceptions on the season. That’s not to mention the fact that he’s scored the game-winning touchdowns the last two weeks as a bruising fullback on offense.

“What he does for us as a leader and a player I don’t know if I’ve seen anything like it since (former Skyline coach) Bob Knapton played for my dad (Al Lear) at Yuma and (former Colorado State standout) Nate Kvamme played for him at Windsor,” FHS coach Thad Lear said. “He’s got the things you can’t really coach. He makes you look good as a coach, but they’re just things that he does.”

Flash is hardly the Warriors’ style.

After knocking off No. 1 Canon City in the first round two weeks ago, the Warriors’ grit and hard hitting wore on No. 8 D’Evelyn in the quarterfinals. The Jaguars’ high-powered offense clicked in the first half as they took a 14-7 lead into the intermission.

But it might have been a second-quarter hit by Rivera that began to tilt the mental edge to Frederick. D’Evelyn leading receiver Matt Menard — who already had made five catches, including a touchdown — crossed the middle. Just as the ball hit his outstretched hands, Rivera came flying up to de-cleat Menard and break up the pass.

Menard caught one more pass to the outside on the next drive, but that was it for the afternoon. Rivera didn’t see Menard test the middle after that, and D’Evelyn sputtered offensively in the second half.

“He’s a great leader,” said FHS senior linebacker Jordan King, who is third on the team in tackles. “He stepped up as a junior and leads the defense in tackles. Most of the guys look up to him. He’s just a great all-around football player.”

Rivera’s impact was felt even as a sophomore.

Frederick opened the season 1-4 as Rivera sat out due to transfer rules. The Warriors had given up 21 points or more in all four losses. When Rivera joined the fray, he helped get the defense on track to allow just 27 points total over the next six games as the Warriors rebounded for a Tri-Valley League title and state quarterfinal run.

But it’s not just Rivera who made the transformation happen. The physical mindset runs up and down the Warriors’ roster, on offense and defense.

King and Jake Vargas are the quarterback menaces, pacing the team with 11 and 81/2 sacks, respectively. Linebacker Ryan Miller is second on the team in tackles. And on and on.

“I think in the end the reason why we win games is, we stay calm but we play really hard and have that refuse-to-be-blocked attitude,” Rivera said.

The offense is just as tough, grinding out yards with a patient and persistent run game that takes its toll on defenses in the fourth quarter. Holding a three-point lead versus D’Evelyn and faced with a fourth-down-and-one from their own 29-yard line late, the Warriors went for the first down and got it to milk nearly all the rest of the clock.

Lear went for it instead of playing it safe and punting, he said, because he knew his team would make the push needed for a first down.

The coach, whose program endured plenty of rough seasons before its current uprising, said the physical nature of his team has evolved over the past couple of years as the players mindsets in the weight room evolved.

“We don’t get worn down,” Lear said. “If they’re not in that weight room, they’re giving each other a hard time about not being there.”

The Warriors graduated a tight-knit 17-player senior class off of last year’s team that had to that point recorded the best season in school history. The day after last season ended, the juniors and sophomores off that team were back in the weight room.

“We just kept working from there,” said Miller, now a junior. “We wanted to have a repeat of last year or better.”