Valley teams prep for 2nd round of playoffs
Sydni Brandon prefers playing on the road.
“I think we play better on the road than here,” the Grand Junction High School sophomore said. “I feel like we don’t have anyone to impress when we go places. Here, we have our parents, our student section and everyone, but when we play away games, we don’t really care. We just play.”
Brandon and the rest of the Tigers (19-4) hope that mentality pays off in the second round of the Class 5A girls basketball state playoffs tonight. They’re headed over the mountains to face Rock Canyon (17-6), a Highlands Ranch school that drew a first-round bye in the 48-team bracket. Tip-off is slated for 6 p.m.
Although the Grand Junction girls are hitting the road for their second-round game, a pair of local hoops teams won’t have to venture far. Grand Junction’s boys and Fruita Monument’s girls enjoyed first-round byes and will host round-of-32 matchups this weekend.
Fruita Monument, winner of the Southwestern League title, hosts Loveland (18-6) at 7 p.m. tonight. The Tigers, the league champions on the boys side, will welcome Fort Collins (15-9) to town at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Fruita Monument girls
Under the direction of first-year coach Richard Atkins, the Wildcats have risen from a team that finished only a couple games over .500 a season ago (13-11) to one that’s 17-6 and got to sit out the first round of the playoffs.
“I think we’ve always had the talent,” senior Eden Laase said. “This year we finally meshed.”
“From the beginning of the season, we all thought we could do it this year,” senior Sam Parks said. “That was the goal from the beginning. We kept working towards it. I definitely thought we had the talent to win league, and we did.”
With a new coach came a change in Fruita’s style of play. The Wildcats shifted from a half-court approach to a run-and-gun attack that’s proving popular — and effective.
“He just knows, offensively, what to run for us with our quick guards and talented post players,” senior Lauren LaBonde said. “I think he sets up the right offense and press and stuff like that.”
Atkins likes to mix it up to keep opponents guessing.
“We like to control the tempo of the game,” he said. “We don’t want to be adjusting to what they’re doing all the time. We want you to adjust to what we’re doing.”
Against a Loveland team that likes to hoist 3-pointers, a challenge awaits Fruita.
“We definitely have to take away the 3-point range by getting them tired and running them up and down the floor,” LaBonde said. “They’ll fire up shots four feet behind the line. We have to take their legs away, so their shots don’t fall and they get frustrated.”
Loveland is led by senior guard Bradey King, who is averaging about 16 points per game and has knocked down more than 50 3-pointers so far this season. The Indians defeated Rangeview 74-27 in the first round.
Grand Junction girls
By finishing with a flourish, Grand Junction’s girls punched their ticket to the round of 32.
Although they didn’t play particularly well in stretches, the Tigers were able to close out a 51-32 win over visiting Mountain Range in the first round Tuesday.
“I was really pleased with the second half,” Grand Junction coach Sam Provenza said. “I thought we turned things around, especially in the fourth quarter.”
With a roster featuring no seniors, slow starts have been an unfortunate trend for the Tigers.
“We can be kind of jittery, nervous,” Brandon said. “We usually don’t get started until the second quarter.”
Brandon and her teammates know that has to change if they want to advance deeper into the playoffs.
“We have to come out strong in the first half,” junior Elisha Jahnke said. “Definitely.”
Rock Canyon boasts a balanced scoring attack led by junior Lexy Thorderson’s 16.1 points per game. She is one of three Jaguars averaging in double figures.
“She’s probably a legitimate D1 kid,” Provenza said. “We’ll have to make sure we know where she is all the time. … She handles it, can take it to the basket, and she’ll step out and shoot it.”
Provenza said the Tigers will be without defensive stalwart Bri Baldwin, who severely sprained her ankle during Tuesday’s playoff opener.
Grand Junction boys
What stands out most to Grand Junction boys basketball coach Dutch Johnson about Fort Collins, his team’s second-round playoff opponent?
“We got some game film, and I’ve talked to some different coaches,” he said. “They’re well-coached, and they’re big. They’ve got like three guys above 6-5 on the court at all times. They’re real meticulous in what they do. They’re a team that really doesn’t beat themselves.”
Aside from size, the Lambkins also boast a pure scorer in senior guard Ryan French, whose 18.8 points per game lead the team. “He can shoot it,” Johnson said. “He moves really well without the ball.”
Couple French with Fort Collins’ size and you have a veritable matchup nightmare.
“It’s almost pick your poison,” said Johnson, who has faith in Zach Kiel’s ability on defense. “He pretty much knows he’s going to guard the other team’s best player.”
With leading scorer Broderick Robinson fronting the pack, the Tigers also boast a little firepower. Firepower that helped Grand Junction to a 17-5 record and league title in the regular season.
“I think we’re peaking at the right time,” Johnson said. “We had stretches where we had really slow starts toward the second half of league play. That was our Achilles’ heel, but we started coming out stronger. Hopefully, we’re playing our best basketball right now.”
Fort Collins beat Rock Canyon 69-57 in the first round Wednesday.