Paonia girls head coach Scott Rienks is eyeing his sixth consecutive trip to the Class 2A state basketball tournament. With an undefeated season and a top seed at this week's Western Slope regional playoffs, odds are they'll get there.
Last weekend the Lady Eagles won the District 5 title at DeBeque High School. Paonia was the top seed going into districts and opened the tournament with a quarterfinal 62-27 win last Wednesday over Plateau Valley. In semifinals Paonia put Rangely away by a score of 55-31.
It's been the goal all season to get back to that championship game after finishing second last season, said senior point guard Sophia Anderson. As the team continues to improve, players are focused on improving their individual role. "We have improved so much ... The little things are what really has helped us," said Anderson. "I think it's finally coming together."
Against Meeker, "We knew they were going to be big and a little rough," said Anderson. "We kept our cool and we did our best."
This season the Eagles have collectively outscored their opponents by more than a 2-1 margin. Paonia is the second highest scoring team in the state; defensively, it leads the state in steals, averaging more than 21 per game. About half of those steals are made by Emily Pieper and Brianna Van Vleet. "A lot of good players put up good numbers until they go against them," said Rienks. "That changes their numbers a little bit."
In comparing this year's team to his 2010 state champion team, Rienks said the 2010 team "was probably a little bit more basketball savvy, but this team is pretty athletic. This group's got some pretty good speed to it."
Rienks said the team has had a "phenomenal season," but is still fine-tuning a few details. Before Saturday's district championship game, Rienks reminded players that Meeker put the first six points on the board in their last meeting. When he pulled the starters in the second half, Meeker kept its starters in and went to a full-court press. Despite the win, "We didn't finish things the way we needed," said Rienks.
Last Saturday he kept the starters in for most of the game to remind the team that it needs to play hard regardless of the score.
While they remain undefeated, Rienks said the biggest improvement of the season has been coming together as a team. They're starting to celebrate small successes like good passes, "and realizing it's not about who scores, but it's about us and being a team."
Teams from the Western Slope, San Juan Basin and San Luis Valley leagues will be at the regional tournament. Paonia earned a first-round bye and will play the winners of Friday's semifinal game between No. 6 seeded Norwood (17-4, San Juan Basin) and No. 9 Center (10-12, San Luis Valley) on Saturday. The winners will advance to the Great 8 tournament.
Also on Saturday, No. 3 Ignacio (15-6, SJB) will play the winner of Friday's game between Norwood and Center, while No. 2 Del Norte (19-2, Southern Peaks League) will face either eighth seeded Ridgway (8-13, SJB) or fifth-seed Meeker (13-9, Western Slope League) on the campus of WSCU.
Saturday's winners advance to the state tournament March 9-11.