Source: Mountaineer Athletics
Mountaineers’ win sets the table for three final home games
The Mountaineers kept up their winning ways on the road against the Hardrockers of South Dakota Mines in the season’s final road game, improving to 7-1 overall (6-1 RMAC) with a 42-21 win. The team recovered from an early 14-0 deficit after the Hardrockers initial drive ended with a score, followed by a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown on a pass from redshirt junior quarterback Connor Desch.
After the interception, Desch rebounded to have a great game, completing 22 of his 39 passing attempts for 301 yards and four scores, and adding 47 more yards and another touchdown with his legs.
While the air attack hummed along, it was a bit tougher sledding on the ground than usual, as the Hardrockers game planned to stop the Mountaineer ground game. Redshirt sophomore running backs Josh Cummings and Deyvon Butler combined to rush 28 times for just 90 total yards, although Cummings did find his way into the end zone.
The Mountaineer defense front continued to keep up the pressure, as they have all season. This time, the target was Hardrocker quarterback Jayden Johannsen. Mountaineer defenders Will Lydle (redshirt senior defensive lineman), Jaden Armbrust (redshirt freshman defensive lineman), and Lane Farris (redshirt senior linebacker) each accounted for one and a half sacks, and the defense finished with eight sacks on the day.
The Mountaineer passing attack was balanced, with four players catching touchdowns, and three amassing more than 50 receiving yards. Redshirt freshman receiver Cole Riters led the receiving corps with three catches for 83 yards, including a 36-yard score.
Riters anchors strong Mountaineer receiving corps
Riters, who wears No. 81, is leading the team in receiving yards (358) and is tied for the lead in total receptions (22). He has also caught two touchdowns this season. While Riters has been on campus since 2020, a freak training accident that resulted in a combined ACL, MCL, and meniscus tear kept him on the sidelines last year. Riters was able to return to practice in spring of 2021, and has fit right into Western’s talented and deep receiving corps through eight games.
Riters says that making the decision to attend Western was easy after he sent in his game film and Western’s coaches showed interest. Aiding that decision was the fact that Cole’s brother, Trevor Riters, has been a Mountaineer linebacker since 2018. “I was telling him (Trevor), tell the coaches about me, ” said Cole, who talked with his brother on the phone frequently before making his decision to commit to Western.
Cole loves watching his brother succeed on the other side of the ball, and reminisces back to playing backyard football. “To look up in the stands and see our family smiling, it feels like we made it”, said Cole, who adds that his family has made all but one game this year. Trevor is also making an impact for the Mountaineers this season, recording 10 tackles and a sack thus far.
Cole played both safety and wide receiver in high school, but recalls that in one game for Silver Creek High School, located in Longmont, CO, coaches pulled him off of defense to keep him fresh after an injury. He said that was the most fun he has ever had playing football, not having to play double duty, which Riters notes was increasingly becoming untenable. “It was real taxing. I was in pretty dang good shape, but my body paid the price,” Riters notes, adding that he also punted and kicked for the Raptors.
Transitioning from high school to college can be a steep learning curve for underclassmen players, something Riters acknowledges: “Football becomes your life…the best players you face in high school, they’re better than that, they’re faster, they’re stronger, they hit twice as hard. It’s pretty eye-opening.”
Source: Mountaineer Athletics
Nevertheless, Riters has persevered in his physical training, and put in the extra work starting early in the summer to build chemistry with the quarterback, master the playbook, and perfect his route running skills. And now it’s paying off.
Riters came into the season with admittedly modest goals. “I like to stay confident and have faith in myself more than anything, but I was honestly just fighting for a spot on the traveling roster. Whatever coach needed me to do, I was ready to step up and take that challenge.”
And Riters has been meeting the challenge on a weekly basis. He notes that the key to Western’s success in the passing game is the depth of the receiver talent, and the healthy relationships between Mountaineer receivers. “We don’t have anybody with big egos that wants to take every target. We celebrate each other’s wins, we love to see each other succeed.”
The statistics bear out this healthy relationship. Thus far, four different Mountaineer receivers have over 200 yards receiving on the season, with two others with more than 150 yards. Redshirt sophomore Damian Macias and redshirt Junior Malik White are tied for the team lead with four touchdowns apiece, but seven Mountaineers have caught touchdown passes.
“The one word I would use to describe it is family. I am walking around the locker room and everyone is smiling and joking around. This is by far the closest I have ever seen a group of guys ever before. We’re a big family, we’re a big unit, and it goes to show on the field, we’re out there playing for each other, not just ourselves.”
Those close relationships are built not just during practice, but also via team functions. As part of Mountaineer football tradition, rookies put on a talent show for the team with the goal of making their teammates laugh . “It shows everyone’s human, not just some tough football players”, says Riters, noting that the team can be quite a tough audience. For his talent, Riters wrote a roast poem with several other rookies lampooning his fellow teammates.
Moving forward, Riters hopes to improve on his deep route runs, mainly his posts and fades, to add to his signature shorter routes. Crisper route running is critical to succeed at the collegiate level, as Riters notes that it’s much harder to gain separation against the faster defenders he plays on a weekly basis.
While Riters is focused on improving himself and leaving it all out on the field, his primary aspiration is for the team. “My main goal right now is a team goal. I want to make (the) playoffs, I want to win (the) RMAC… That’s gonna mean a lot to me and this program.” Should the Mountaineers win their three remaining games, they will gain at least a share of the RMAC title, and a likely playoff berth out of Division-II Super Region Four, where they are currently ranked No. 9.
Currently, Colorado Mesa, Colorado School of Mines, and CSU Pueblo join the Mountaineers at the top of the conference standings. All three teams have just one RMAC loss, and Western will play Mesa and Pueblo, with a non-conference date against Lincoln University (Calif.) sandwiched in between.
For Cole, visualizing successful outcomes is a huge part of his pregame routine, along with his typical spaghetti and meatball dinner, with veggies on the side. He sets aside half an hour before games to turn off all electronics and just sit with his thoughts, running through film in his mind and thinking about specific plays.
Looking ahead to the Colorado Mesa game, Riters notes that the Mavericks team is stacked with athletic talent. “You can’t beat them with speed, you can’t beat them with quickness”, he said, so the name of the game will be to win with mental preparation, capitalizing on mistakes to create separation on his routes. Riters says this process will have to take part primarily on the field throughout the game, reacting to what the defense gives him.
The Mountaineers matchup with the Mesa Mavericks (5-1 RMAC, 6-1 overall), will be the first game between two ranked teams in the history of the Mountaineer Bowl. The Mountaineers have moved up to be ranked No. 20 in the Division-II coaches poll (their first year being ranked since the rankings began), while Mesa sits at No. 22. Colorado School of Mines, Western’s singular loss in overtime earlier in the season, sits at No. 14.
Heading into the game, the strength of the Mountaineers running game, a large contributor to the team’s success, is well known, and Riters notes that opposing teams, including South Dakota Mines, have been “loading the box”, putting additional defenders up near the line of scrimmage to try to neutralize Mountaineer rushers. Riters adds that this is not a problem for this balanced Mountaineers offense, who can also find success in the pass game, as they did against the Hardrockers.
Examining Mesa’s film, the Mavericks typically do not opt to load the box, instead trusting their defensive line to mitigate the opponent’s running games. “They have a lot of faith in their d-line, but we have even more faith in our o-line,” Riters says with a grin.
Riters notes that one of the informal motto of this team is “change the culture”, and indeed this Mountaineers squad is raising the bar for Western football. “I think this is going to be a winning team for years to come,” said Riters.