Fruita enters playoffs on hot streak—worst to first in SWL

Gustaf Alin, shown here in a SWL game against Montezuma-Cortez, has developed into a strong front-court player for the Wildcats.


No. 5 Boulder (16-7) at No. 4 Fruita Monument (15-8)

• Time: 7 tonight, Fruita Monument High School

• Leagues: Boulder — Front Range (9-2); Fruita Monument — Southwestern (10-0)

• Coaches: Boulder — Alan Schulz, fourth year; Fruita Monument — Dave Fox, fourth year

• Past 10: Boulder — 8-2; Fruita Monument — 10-0

• Leading Scorers: Boulder — Riley Grabeu, 18 points per game; Fruita Monument — Drew Bridges, 13 ppg

• Next Game: The winner plays the winner of No. 1 Regis and No. 8 Monarch in the Sweet 16

• Notes: Fruita Monument knows it has a challenge against Boulder, which comes into the game on an eight-game winning streak, including a 65-48 dismantling of Westminster in the first round. Boulder is led by Grabeu, a 6-foot-2 point guard who transferred from Faith Christian after the Christmas break and has reached double figures in all 12 games he played this season.

“He’s the real deal,” Fox said. “He’s good in the open court and we’re going to have to keep track of him.”

Fox said the Wildcats will put 6-1 senior guard Steve Goff on Grabeu. The teams should match up fairly evenly, with both having good size in the post and strong perimeter shooting.

The key for Fruita will be playing with high emotion and feeding off its home crowd.

“I hope they are ready,” Fox said. “We aren’t satisfied and want to step into new territory.”

Fox said the Wildcats need to win to help the reputation of the SWL because Fruita is the lowest No. 4 seed of the four Class 5A regions, despite going undefeated in league play.

“If we are going to get credit, we have to start winning some of these games we are hosting,” Fox said. “The SWL needs us to win some games on this side of the mountain.”

Like most coaches, Dave Fox doesn’t like losing.

Needless to say, the Fruita Monument High School boys basketball coach wasn’t very happy last season when the Wildcats were in the midst of their first losing season since 1993.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a losing record here, and that’s something that’s not easy to take,” Fox said of last season.

Despite finishing 1-9 in the Southwestern League and missing the playoffs, Fox never gave up, never threw in the towel, and never hung up the whistle. The easiest explanation was because he knew there was light at the end of the tunnel.

Some bright lights, actually: underclassmen Drew Bridges, Tyler Daniels, Tyler Kenagy and Tanner Crites. Those four, along with seniors Steve Goff and TJ Pollock, took the Wildcats from worst to first in the Southwestern League.

The Wildcats ran the table, going 10-0 in the SWL to win the league for the first time since 2001. Fruita earned a No. 4 seed in the Class 5A state playoffs and a showdown with No. 5 Boulder (16-7) at 7 tonight at Fruita Monument.

“Last year we had to deal with being the laughing stock, and that didn’t feel good,” said Bridges, a sophomore. “It was tough seeing that from the bench, seeing things we would struggle with in games, and we would try to work on it, but still couldn’t get it right.”

The 6-foot-4 Bridges has been a key player in the Wildcats’ turnaround. After playing sparingly as a freshman, Bridges emerged this season as one of the toughest big men in the league. He averages 13 points per game and has a wide variety of moves as a post player. He is relentless in attacking the glass and going after loose balls.

“Last year being so bad, we had take a different approach this season. We just wanted to work as hard as we can,” Bridges said. “We wanted to be the best we could be, trying to be that perfect team.”

Bridges has been an emerging star in the front court, but a variety of Wildcats have been successful. They include:

Daniels, a junior point guard recovering from a dislocated left elbow in time to be a floor general during the league season.

Kenagy, a solid midrange shooter who provides size under the backboards.

Crites, who replaced Kenagy without Fruita missing beat after Kenagy sustained a concussion nearly a month ago.

Swedish exchange student Gustaf Alin, who has come into his own in the Wildcats’ scheme, controlling the boards during a big win over Grand Junction.

Alex Padgett, a transfer from Grand Junction who became a legitimate scoring threat after the Christmas break when he became eligible.

“They are great teammates and the chemistry has been fun,” Fox said. “Our kids have been goal-oriented, and they seem to thrive on that.”

But for all the skills of the underclassmen, a lot of the credit has to go to seniors Goff, Willie Stevens and Pollock.

Pollock got the most playing time as a junior and said he knew the next batch of underclassmen were going to be good.

“We all knew they had special talent, and we weren’t too worried about them stepping into the new roles,” Pollock said. “They proved it this year, and that’s another nice part of our success; we did it with no returning starters.”

Pollock gives the Wildcats a second scoring threat, averaging 11 points per game.

Goff has been the guy the Wildcats look to when they need someone to come up with a clutch play. In games against Durango, Grand Junction and Montrose, Goff scored critical points down the stretch,  setting up wins. Stevens doesn’t get many minutes but is the type of player who helps bring everyone together.

“We wanted to be there for each other, and if the younger guys need someone to talk to, it’s kind of our job,” Pollock said. “As seniors, we have to mediate between coaches and players, and I think all three of us did a good job of that.”

Against Boulder, the Wildcats need all their pieces to come together to earn their first playoff win since 2006 and the first in Fox’s tenure as boys coach. The Wildcats aren’t putting anything out of reach.

“I think they are motivated by success,” Fox said. “It would be fun to beat Boulder, then see what happens. I mean, you never know.”


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