Staying focused

Paonia girls confident as they head into 2A state tourney

Jessica Altman and the Paonia girls know they have a target on their backs as the No. 1 seed in the Class 2A state tournament in Pueblo. The Eagles hope their solid defense and fast-paced offense lead to another title.

It’s been sort of a theme for the Paonia High School girls basketball team this year, and it’s a simple one.

“The joke on this team is that if they are loose, I am loose,” head coach Scott Rienks said. “But, if they are nervous, I am nervous.”

To the Eagles’ credit, “we’ve only been nervous twice in the last year,” Rienks said.

Once was the devastating 46-35 loss to Sargent in opening round of last year’s Class 2A regional tournament, when the Eagles where the defending state champions. The other was a 49-46 loss to Class 4A Delta earlier this year — a game the Eagles let slip away in the final four minutes.

“Those were both losses, so we try really hard not to get nervous,” Rienks said. “The 2010 group (state championship team) was focused. This group ... if they get quiet, I’m gonna get nervous.”

Since the loss to Delta on Dec. 16, the Eagles have been focused, winning 18 straight games and averaging nearly 67 points per game. Last weekend, the Eagles punched their ticket back to the Class 2A state tournament at the Colorado State Fair Events Center in Pueblo by defeating Denver Christian 58-36 in the Class 2A Region 5 title game.

Paonia (22-1) is the No. 1 seed and faces Del Norte (17-5) at 8:45 a.m. Thursday.

A big part of Paonia’s focus is credited to a stifling defense, which often leads to a run-and-gun style offense.

“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, we get a lot of leak-outs and our offense takes over and so we have put more emphasis on our running game this year.

“We’re trying to get the ball up the court as fast as we can and that stems from good defense and our press.”

The Eagles average nearly 20 steals a game, and in last week’s win over the Crusaders, the Eagles forced 25 turnovers ­— in the first half.

Over the past three years, the Eagles have amassed an eye-popping 64-6 record. A lot of that can be credited to the team’s focus, which will need to be on cue heading into this week’s state tournament.

“I think the main thing we need to do is trust ourselves and enjoy it,” Rienks said. “Trust is a big thing for this group and they believe in what we are doing. It might not always be good in the first, second or third and it might be a close game, but in the fourth quarter we’ll pull away because of our conditioning and our depth.”

After missing the chance to defend their title last year, the Eagles were more determined to get back to the state tournament this season.

“I think we were just more experienced and more confident this year,” sophomore Carson Pipher said. “We weren’t scared. We had the experience and we pulled it together this year. We were a much tighter team this year because of what happened last year.”

But there’s a difference in the confidence the Eagles have and overconfidence.

“We’re not overconfident at all,” Pipher said. “We know there are other teams on the East side that we haven’t seen. We know they are good and we know they are coming for us. We’re ready and we are excited.”

As the top seed, the Eagles will enter the tournament with a clear target on their back. That type of pressure, however, is a non-issue.

“We just don’t think about that at all,” Pipher said. “We are just going to go play our best game and give it a 110 percent and one game at a time.”

Senior Jessica Altman, one of two seniors on the team, said getting back to state was a necessity. Anything else would have been just another disappointment.

“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.”


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