Undefeated Rifle sets sights on rest of 3A field at state
Rifle High School girls basketball coach Stephanie Heald always knew what kind of team she had.
The rest of Class 3A is finding out.
The Bears (24-0) are the No. 2 seed in this weekend’s Great 8 of the 3A state tournament at Colorado State University.
Rifle begins its quest for a state championship Thursday against No. 7 Eaton at 8:30 p.m.
“I’ve been saying since the beginning that I knew this group was a pretty special group,” Heald said. “I knew we could get far if we were focused, and their goal since the beginning has been to get to the state tournament.”
Rifle’s last trip this deep in the playoffs was in 2007, when the Bears lost in the Great 8.
The Bears have been to the quarterfinals five other times in their history, including a loss in the 1986 Class 2A championship to Machebeuf.
Last season, Rifle lost in the Sweet 16 of the Class 4A tournament to Cheyenne Mountain, but the Bears were confident about their chances this season.
The Bears dropped from 4A to 3A and returned four of their five starters, including 4A Western Slope player of the year, Cortney Cordova.
Cordova picked up this season where she left off in 2010, averaging 20.6 points per game, but she hasn’t done it alone.
Senior point guard Makayla Wilkins is averaging nine points per game and is Rifle’s defensive stopper.
In the Bears’ 42-24 Sweet 16 rout of Manitou Springs, Wilkins held the Mustangs’ leading scorer, Amelia Schofield, to a season-low six points.
“I can always count on her for defense,” Heald said. “She’s a great defender.”
Senior post players Racheal Keithley, Haydn Holgate and Tresa Berner give the Bears an inside presence to go with Cordova and Wilkins.
“Racheal Keithley is our emotional leader,” Heald said. “She gets things done, and is also looking to get us going.”
The Bears have the personnel to compete, but will have to adjust to the big stage.
The atmosphere changes this weekend from high school gyms to CSU’s 8,745-seat Moby Arena.
Although this is the first trip this deep in the playoffs for this Rifle team, that doesn’t mean it’s a first in this type of arena. The Bears played a game last season against Steamboat Springs in the Pepsi Center.
“It’s an adjustment at the beginning,” Heald said. “There isn’t much I can do to practice it, but I want to make sure they are aware of the difference, and it’s in the back of their minds.”
With a win Thursday, the Bears would play the winner of No. 6 Estes Park and No. 3 Pagosa Springs at 8:30 on Friday night.
If Rifle can make Saturday’s championship, there’s a strong possibility it’ll run into No. 1 seed Holy Family.
The Tigers have won the previous three 3A state championships, including last season’s 45-29 win over Colorado Springs Christian.
“We have to stay focused and be ready to play,” Heald said. “If we think it’s going to be easy when we get over there, then we are going to get beat.
“If we are focused and know games are going to be tough, but we run and push, we’ll be OK.”