Nearly one year ago, a tight-knit group of Mesa Ridge football players endured their darkest hour when junior teammate Jaleel John-Baptiste died from injuries suffered in a car accident off Fontaine Boulevard in Widefield.
A roadside memorial serves as a place of prayer, fellowship and conversation. His status as honorary captain before every game — his No. 64 jersey is taken to midfield — gives the Grizzlies the perspective of not taking anything for granted.
After the school’s first playoff victory Nov. 9 in Montrose, Mesa Ridge (8-3) enjoys its finest hour, having earned a home game at 7 p.m. Friday against No. 2 and undefeated Ponderosa (11-0) in a 4A quarterfinal at C.A. Foster Stadium.
“He walks out there with us every game,” senior lineman and longtime friend Matt Faraci said. “He’s not here with us, but we decided that he’s still our brother, a part of this team. What he wouldn’t do to be here right now is what I want to do, and we all have extra motivation to do it for him.”
The Grizzlies believe they are getting a little nudge from their fallen lineman, especially in the rushing game. Mesa Ridge averaged 7.1 yards per rush in last week’s ground-breaking 35-14 first-round playoff win at Montrose and have amassed 33 rushing touchdowns.
“He was the closest friend we had, and it’s been a struggle,” senior lineman Rico Collins said. “Every time before I come to the line, I say ‘JJB.’ We’re all thinking of him. To us, he’s still here.”
Meanwhile, an efficient passing game led by senior quarterback Cody Groff has accounted for 25 touchdowns and just eight interceptions to go along with an opportunistic defense that has forced 26 turnovers.
“He (Jaleel) was always the kid with all the energy; he wanted to do everything,” said junior running back and linebacker Tremell Stanley, who leads the Grizzlies’ ground game with 1,077 yards and 13 touchdowns. “He rubbed off on everyone. He made everyone want to do more and play better. That’s what we’re doing now.”
Last year, on the heels of a first-round playoff loss in 2010, the Grizzlies seemed primed for another run after a 5-2 start. However, three consecutive losses ended their season early, and the returning players set the tone for the following season with an intensive offseason workout and weightlifting regimen.
With and without John-Baptiste.
“All of us, especially the linemen, were all out here lifting through the winter, spring and summer,” Faraci said. “We were working so hard for the season. Even though Jaleel is gone, I do a lot for him and think about him while I’m playing.”
The extra efforts certainly appear as if they’re paying off.
Of the Grizzlies’ three losses, two came at the hands of state-ranked opponents Denver South (10-1) and Pueblo West (11-0), both part of 4A’s final eight teams.
That other loss came Oct. 6 at the hands of rival Widefield, when Mesa Ridge imploded in the second half, blowing a 20-0 lead and having a game-winning score nullified by a penalty in the waning moments of a 27-26 setback.
That kind of loss might have demoralized this team any other year.
Instead, the Grizzlies turned those moments of frustration into a positive, winning four of five since and doing everything not to repeat those mistakes.
“After the Widefield game, we all realized what we want from the season,” Stanley said. “That was one that got away from us, and we don’t want that to ever happen again. It still eats at us, and things have really come together since then.”
The Grizzlies rewrote history with last week’s playoff win, five hours away in Montrose, following previous postseason setbacks at Greeley West in 2006 and Wheat Ridge in 2010.
“It was a great win and a big step for us,” seventh-year coach Rob Braaten said. “The trip back was definitely easier to tolerate coming off a win. The kids are excited but have the right focus. We still have work to do.”