The Paonia Eagles will make their sixth consecutive trip to the girls state basketball championships this week after defeating Center, 78-37, Saturday at the West Slope regional tournament at Gunnison. They enter the Great 8 bracket as the No. 2 seed and with a 22-0 record.
Mckenna Hartigan scored six of her 13 points for the game in the first period, boosting Paonia to a 15-6 lead heading into the second period.
Center's shots started falling in the second and it put 15 points on the board to trail, 34-21, at the half.
In the second half Paonia adjusted the press, and the shots started falling. The team finished strong, scoring 44 points in the second half.
"We know that it's not always going to start off pretty or it's going to be pretty all the time, but once the athleticism takes over, they'll be okay," said head coach Scott Rienks.
Point guard Sophia Anderson was high scorer with 24 points. Anderson, who averages more than 16 points per game has consistently been high scorer, was heavily guarded and shot 10-of-14 from the free throw line. Emily Pieper and Hartigan each contributed 13 points, Brianna Van Vleet scored 11, and Mckenna Palmer scored in every period to end the game with 10 points.
Paonia had 17 fouls in the game. In the opening minutes Anderson had two fouls called on her. She backed off a little, and the entire defense wasn't playing as tight as normal, said Rienks. Paonia's defense is relentless and leads the 2A Class in steals. But with their aggressive style they also risk fouls, he said.
Rienks praised the young Center team, which he said hasn't been this far into post season play since the 1980s. Center (11-13 Southern Peaks League) has four freshmen, including six-foot-one starter Alyssa Hammel, who fought hard the entire game. The team knew about her going into the game and were prepared, said Rienks.
He also gave Center coach Kevin Jones credit for having a well-coached team. "They fought and scrapped the whole game," he said. "They used our aggressiveness against us a little bit in the first half," resulting in two fouls on Anderson early in the first period.
After Paonia placed second at last year's state tournament, "It's been our goal to get back to that state championship game," said Anderson after Paonia won the District 5 championship on Feb. 25. "We see ourselves winning it this year."
With each game, each player improves and gets stronger in her position on the court, said Anderson, and everyone has a good attitude. This year's team is also a lot quicker and more athletic than in recent years. "As a team we've come together so much these past few games. The little things are what really helped us."
The regional tournament was divided into three pods of three teams, with the winner of each pod advancing. Del Norte (21-2 Southern Peaks league) qualified for state after defeating Ignacio, and Sanford (16-7 Southern Peaks) defeated Norwood.
In the opening round Paonia will face 20-2 Swink, the No. 7 seed, at 4 p.m. Thursday. The Lions finished sixth in the state in 2016.
Yuma, which beat Paonia last year to win the title, returns as the No. 1 seed. Also returning is Wray (No. 4), which placed fourth in 2016. Simla (No. 5), Haxtun (No. 6) and Ignacio (No. 8) round out the final eight.
This is Paonia's sixth consecutive trip to state, and Rienks' ninth state qualifying team since he took over as head coach for the 2007-2008 season. The Eagles claimed their only state basketball title in 2010.