BOYS BASKETBALL: State Tournament Thoughts
Now that the state tournament has wrapped up in all classes, it gives us a chance to review the final week of boys basketball. McClave, Denver Christian, Pagosa Springs, Lewis Palmer and Eaglecrest grabbed championships on Saturday but in addition to those teams, there were other stories worth noting from the weekend. We observed most of the games either live or online and these are some thoughts we came away with.
Going into the tournament, we thought the only team that had a serious chance of beating Shining Mountain was McClave and the Cardinals did just that with relative ease on Saturday. A change in defense likely keyed the Cardinals championship run as they moved to a 2-3 zone against the Lions which tried to force them to rely on outside shooting. Cody Canfield was a major factor defensively as he blocked or altered many shots on the inside and his presence allowed the rest of the Cardinals to fly around defensively. That group was used to playing a full court man-to-man defense much of the year and they used many of the same principles while sitting in the zone. McClave was able to apply great on-ball pressure and also used quickness to make steals on cross-court passes that Shining Mountain often uses against zone defenses.
The Cardinals quick start
was also important as Shining Mountain is almost impossible to beat while
playing from behind. They utilize the
most patient offense in Class 1A but when falling behind by 20 in the first
half, that deliberate style also becomes a detriment as they’re not used to
coming from that far down.
And is there any question that McClave’s Cody Canfield is the best player in Class 1A this year. We already mentioned his stalwart play on defense but offensively, he displayed great hands and great strength with numerous catches and finishes in traffic off lob passes from his teammates. He fouled out with six minutes to play in the game and those were probably the longest six basketball minutes of Coach Shawn Randel’s life but the rest of the Cardinals played well down the stretch to keep the margin virtually the same.
Also have to mention Gabe
Longworth. The sophomore guard dropped
in outside shot after outside shot helping the Cardinals play probably their
best game of the season at the right time of the year. Nothing better than playing your best on the biggest stage and especially as a second year player.
For Shining Mountain the loss was very frustrating as they’d been pointing to the state championship game ever since losing to Norwood in the regional finals last year. Have to credit Colin Cantwell who played much of the second half on one leg and also Andrew Bremmer who scored 23 of his team’s 27 points in the second half. Bremmer was also one of the many players on both teams that displayed great sportsmanship throughout the game. Even though down 20 points in the second half and the game out of reach, he could be seen chatting with several McClave players during dead ball situations. Canfield was also strong in this area. He was involved in several big collisions on blocked shot attempts and loose ball situations but every time he and the opponent helped each other up and credited each with great hustle. It was a great way to end a fantastic 1A state tournament.
Outside the championship game, kudos should be handed out to Vail Christian. The Saints started their basketball program in 1999 and were making their first-ever visit to the state tournament. They played well all three nights to end up with the third place trophy to place in an empty basketball trophy case in Vail. We didn’t know a lot about the Saints going into the tournament, but based on their second place finish in the 2A dominated Western Slope tournament, we were not surprised by their success in Broomfield.
Vail Christian of course
took out Caliche in the third place game Saturday afternoon and even though the
Buffs fell short in their quest for a fifth consecutive championship, they played
like champions to the end. Effort is
always the strength of the Caliche strategy and they played hard to the final
second in all three games. I’m guessing
1A fans will hear from them again.
One final note on the tournament is that CHSAA needs to find a permanent home for the Class 1A tournament. I was thinking during the final day that if Caliche had won another title, the Buffs would have won five titles at five different sites. Last year the event was held at the Loveland Events Center, the year prior at UNC-Greeley and the two years before at two different venues in Pueblo. Let’s do our best to find a permanent home for the 1A folks like they have in every other classification.
Every team wants to be playing their best basketball in March and that was the case for Denver Christian. The defending state champions spent a good share of the regular season working new players into the rotation and those players were also getting used to hearing from a different coach. Legendary Dick Katte of course was at the control when the Crusaders earned the title last March but this year the team won the championship with long-time assistant Ray Van Heukelem. Much like Gene Bartow who succeeded John Wooden at UCLA, Van Huekelem I’m sure felt great pressure in his first year as the man in charge of the program and he finished off on top. It was nice to see him get his moment in the sun after so many years on the sideline as an assistant.
The championship game was
eerily similar to 2012 with Denver Christian jumping to a big double digit lead
early and then holding off a strong rally from Limon. The Badgers obviously were down-trodden after
a second straight loss in the state finals to the same team but I’m sure there
are about 65 other teams in Class 2A that would like to be in that
position. It’s very difficult to take a
loss like that on Saturday but hopefully the Badgers and their community will
understand what a great two year run Dirk Pedersen and the team has had.
Sanford and Sierra Grande also gave solid proof that there is good basketball outside the Metro area and East in Class 2A. Sanford’s run this year will only give them more experience to make a championship run the next few seasons. They placed third and were a few plays away from reaching the title game without a senior on the roster. Expect them to make serious noise over the next couple of years. We were also not surprised to see Sierra Grande make an appearance at the state tournament. The Panthers returned four key players from a team that finished second in 1A the year before and all season long we expected them to be in the chase because of their talent, coaching and style of play. It took them awhile to find their stride in Class 2A but like Denver Christian were playing their best basketball down the stretch. Their game with Heritage Christian in the regional finals was one of the best we watched all season.
Sierra Grande of course took out Peyton in the opening round as they knocked out the number one seed. That result and the play the next night from the Panthers were perplexing on our part. Going into the tournament, the Panthers were our unpublicized pick to win the championship but they obviously struggled and did not play up to their potential on Thursday and Friday.
Going into the bracket,
Pagosa Springs was like that little known relative who surprisingly attends a
family reunion. Little is known about
them but in the end, they could end up being the life of the party. The Pirates were the only team from outside
the Patriot and Metro leagues in the tournament but on Saturday they enjoyed
the fun of lifting the Gold Ball.
What a year for Kain Lucero. I’m sure there were eyebrows raised when he was named to play in THE SHOW, the state’s annual all-star game that features the top 20 players in the state. Because of location, not many casual basketball fans knew about Lucero but over three days in Fort Collins he easily cemented his spot among the top competitors in Colorado. We have watched him in-person every year since his sophomore season but in a December tournament in Buena Vista, Lucero appeared to take his game to a higher level. At that point, we thought he was the best player in Class 3A and that he had a chance to lead his team to the state tournament. Lucero received plenty of help from Zach Griego, Quinn Smith, Garek Erskine, Dean Hampton and others, ask any coach about the value of a talented point guard who’s a team leader and you will not be surprised that Pagosa Springs won the championship.
Congratulations also need
to be handed out to Coach Randy Sorenson.
There’s not a nicer man or more soft spoken coach in the state but he
directed the team to Fort Collins and then pushed them to three wins over
quality opponents once there.
Kent Denver again experienced frustration with a second straight narrow loss in the state championship game. This year’s loss will be especially difficult to handle as the Sun Devils top 10 players were all seniors so the game represented the final chance for the group to win the crown. They battled high expectations throughout the season and handled it well in reaching the state championship tilt for a second straight year. Much like Limon in Class 2A, there are several programs in the division that would like to exchange places with the Sun Devils.
Faith Christian did not win
the championship for the first time in six years but leave no doubt that
despite their below normal record, no team wanted to see the Eagles on their
side of the bracket. After battling
through an up and down regular season, the Eagles put on their championship
resume for the post-season and again returned home with hardware from Fort
Collins after beating Colorado Academy for the consolation crown.
Colorado Academy and Brush (3rd place) will be among the favorites to land the championship in 2014. The Beetdiggers lose just one senior from the roster but it’s a key setback as Mitch Tormohlen graduates. He gave the team much needed size on the inside but more importantly was willing to let several underclassmen take the lead on the offensive end. Tormohlen was content to rebound and defend and let the younger players gain the glory in the scoring column. Colorado Academy of course has the talented freshman trio that probably reached the state tournament at least one year ahead of schedule. Despite two losses in three game, the Mustangs should be able to use the Fort Collins experience to make a couple of return visits in the near future.
If state championships were based on strictly talent and depth alone, Lewis Palmer this year would likely not have been in the running but the Rangers used great team chemistry, fundamentals and defense to win a second consecutive championship. And they won the title in different fashion. Last year the Rangers were carried by the best player in the state (Josh Scott) who powered the Rangers from the inside. This year the Rangers were more perimeter oriented but could also get the ball inside to Jordan Scott and Justin Smith when necessary. Those two are among the best players in Colorado this year but the remaining players on the Rangers roster knew their roles extremely well and made very few mistakes under the great tutelage of Russ McKinstry.
Valor Christian finished second
to Lewis Palmer and they receive plenty of criticism from fans around the state
because of their quick success but hopefully those same fans witnessed the
behavior of their team on Saturday.
After receiving the second place trophy, the Eagles did not leave the
court; instead they stayed put and applauded the Rangers as they accepted their
second straight Gold Ball.
Wasson and Broomfield were the two Final Four members that had to sit out the championship round but both had great experiences leading up to the semifinals. Players for Wasson of course were playing for the final piece of school history each game this season and performed at a high level in every game of the year. The school is closing at the end of the year so this is the final edition of the T-Birds. They should hold their heads high for the legacy they will leave school alumni. Broomfield of course suffered a stunning loss to Valor Christian in the semifinals. They led for 31 minutes and 50 seconds before watching the Eagles nail a game winning three pointer in the closing seconds. That loss will sting will for quite a while but should motivate the Eagles for a return visit to the Final Four next season.
We asked the same question to every big school coach we interviewed this year and that question simply said, can any team beat Denver East this year? The answer was the same. Every coach replied that Denver East obviously had the most talent but they also said on any given night there were several teams that could knock off the Angels. That night was Saturday and that team was Eaglecrest. The Raptors stunned Denver East 63-44 to win the championship and ousted a team many thought was the most talented in Colorado for the past several years.
The bad news is that every
starter for Denver East returns next season so the Angels will likely occupy
the top spot again next year and don’t be surprised if their play jumps up a
new level and the championship loss will likely motivate them for a strong run
Big school basketball this year was probably the most fun to watch in the ten year existence of Colorado Preps. In most years, there are two or three teams that seem to be a step above all others and most fans knew one of those three would land the championship. Even though Denver East was the favorite this year, there were eight to ten other teams that had enough talent to win on any given night. That made for a very eventual regular season and a very exciting post-season that included several “upsets”. Let’s hope there’s more to come in future years.