A long time coming: Schmalz has Fruita Monument girls excited about hosting
Fruita Monument is finally home again.
For the first time since 1999, the Wildcats girls basketball team is hosting a Class 5A playoff game at 7 tonight, taking on Rampart.
“We still get to play at home and that’s important to us,” Wildcats forward Taylor Johnson said. “We set the goal of having a home playoff game at the beginning of the season, so it feels good to do that.”
In 1999, Fruita Monument coach Gretchen Schwerdtfeger led the Wildcats to a 50-42 home victory against Montbello in their first year in Class 5A. The Wildcats finished 12-9 that season.
The Wildcats finished 10-11 the next season, again defeating Montbello in the playoffs, 71-66 on the road.
The next seven seasons resulted in seven losing records, five first-round road losses and two seasons where the Wildcats missed the 48-team field completely.
In 2008, Dan Schmalz, a young, unproven boys basketball assistant from Olathe, took over and has brought the Wildcats back into contention.
Fruita Monument made the postseason his first two seasons, but both ended in first-round losses at Columbine and Cherry Creek.
Last season, the Wildcats got a No. 9 seed and defeated Rocky Mountain 60-55 in the first round before being quickly knocked out in the second round 64-20 by No. 1 seed Highlands Ranch.
This season, the Wildcats went 14-9, including a 7-3 record in the Southwestern League. It was the first time since 1999 the Wildcats finished over .500.
“The girls were committed to getting better and making the program successful,” Schmalz said. “They’ve come up in the freshman and JV (programs) and aren’t used to losing.
“The coaches aren’t used to losing, we have a winning attitude and we think we can win every game.”
The Wildcats are led by four seniors, Johnson, Keila Utu, Megan Reynoso, and Reanna Kissner, all of whom have seen the progression of the program.
“Coach Schmalz and I were here together the first year, and everyone was getting used to how he coaches,” Reynoso said. “But it’s grown so much since then and gotten better every year.”
Johnson is the only four-year varsity player under Schmalz, and averaged 13.3 points, six rebounds, and two blocks per game this season.
“We’ve progressed a lot as a program,” Johnson said. “We feel like we have confidence no matter what.”
Reynoso has averaged eight points and hit a team-high 42 3-pointers. Utu has averaged seven points and six rebounds.
“Our four seniors have gone through some times that weren’t very good,” Schmalz said. “They deserve this and I’m happy for all the girls in the program, but especially the seniors who have seen the evolution of the program.”
Although the seniors are a solid base, the Wildcats’ biggest addition this season has been sophomore guard Lauren LaBonde, who has averaged 13.8 points this season.
With the personnel in place, Schmalz said the Wildcats can’t squander their opportunity.
“We have to be mentally focused and we can’t think anything is going to be easy,” Schmalz said. “We can’t look ahead now because if you do that, you are done.”
Rampart finished the season 10-13, and lost its final four games to playoff teams Pine Creek, Doherty, Palmer and Fountain-Fort Carson.
Sophomore Macy Myers leads the Rams with 14.7 points per game.
Schmalz said the key to tonight’s game is a strong start for the Wildcats.
“We want to get up on them quick and keep pushing from there,” Schmalz said. “I hope the community shows up because this has been a long time coming for the girls program.”