Eagles soar back to state
It’s been a familiar story surrounding the Paonia High School girls basketball team this year.
After winning the Class 2A state championship in 2010, many felt the Eagles were capable of a repeat last year. But when the Eagles lost in the opening round of the 2A Regional Tournament, the talk of the town seemed to be focused around how the Eagles would avoid another such upset this year.
All the constant chatter, talk and hopes can finally be put to rest.
The Eagles are back in the state tournament after defeating Denver Christian on Saturday, 58-36 in the championship game of the Class 2A Region 5 tournament at Colorado Mesa University.
Redemption has been met.
The state tournament will begin Thursday at the Colorado State Fair Events Center in Pueblo.
“This feels great. Awesome,” senior guard Jessica Altman said. “Especially after last year.”
Altman, who scored 13 points, had seven assists and six steals for the Eagles, said getting back to the state tournament was a unified goal.
“I think it’s mostly satisfaction for ourselves and our team,” she said. “As soon as we lost last year, we all made a promise to each other to work 100 times harder this year and to not be in that situation again. So, as far as working harder and making sure we didn’t end up where we did last year, we’ve reached our goal, but it doesn’t end there. We all want to get back that state championship — that’s the ultimate goal.”
Last year’s regional loss, Paonia coach Scott Rienks said, was difficult, but it also proved to be a one of those defining moments his team would build on.
“They were still upset about that loss all year long,” he said. “I think the thing people don’t realize is that this is the same group of girls. I didn’t lose anyone from last year’s team. We were young last year. It was their first time and chance in a big game and I felt all along that anywhere we got to last year was a bonus for this year. I really think it did motivate us for this year.”
After defeating Custer County on Friday night, the Eagles ran circles around Denver Christian in the first half, building a 39-11 halftime lead. The game was tied at 7-7 early in the quarter, but then the Eagles closed the quarter on a 13-0 run to take a 20-7 lead.
In the first quarter, the Eagles got an early spark from junior Chelsy Reed, who drilled three 3s. Reed, who isn’t shy when it comes to shooting the 3-pointer, made all of her 3s from the same corner.
“In the corner is where I feel most comfortable shooting,” she said. “I was on today, but wasn’t (in Friday night’s win over Custer County.) I shot a lot more 3s than I made (Friday). But that’s how it goes. Some games some of us are on and some games we aren’t.”
Altman, who scored six points in the first half, said the Eagles came out and played the style of basketball that has led them to a 22-1 record this year — by having fun.
“The first half was mostly a lot of fun for us,” Altman said. “We came out right off the bat, played our game and played it with a lot of confidence.”
As powerful as Paonia’s offense was in the first half, its defense took center stage by forcing 25 turnovers that led to 28 of the team’s 39 first-half points.
“Our defense is absolutely the key,” Altman said. “Our defense fuels our offense,”
Defensive pressure for the Eagles begins and ends with the full-court press, which the Crusaders struggled to break the entire game.
“Our focus is our defense,” Rienks said. “We know that if we go to a slowdown game on offense we aren’t going to be dominant on offense. But we know that if we run a press on defense that we get a lot of leak outs and our offense takes over.”
The second half showed a different side of the Eagles, as they committed five turnovers on their first six possessions and struggled to maintain momentum.
“That, I don’t feel like it was (Denver Christian’s) defense, it was us not getting good looks,” he said. “So, yeah, it does concern me and I got a little upset about it in the second half. Then again, I do think that when you’re up by 28 at halftime that you’re going to half a little bit of a letdown.”
“I think we lost some of the intensity we had in the first half,” Reed said. “It is hard once you build a big lead to keep that intensity up, so I guess that is something we have to work on.”
Continuing the momentum into the state tournament for the Eagles comes down to a fundamentals.
“I think the main thing is that we have to trust ourselves the way we have been and enjoy it,” he said.