After placing in the top five in the district, Hotchkiss and Paonia will compete this weekend in regional tournaments for a shot at the Great 8 state championship tournament in Loveland.
Hotchkiss opened the district tournament last Wednesday with a 68-63 quarterfinal win against rival Paonia. A lot was on the line, as the winner was guaranteed a regional berth, and the loser needed to win two games to advance to regional play, and was sure to have to travel.
It was important to come out strong against Paonia, be ready, and have a halftime lead, said Hotchkiss head coach Eric Hollembeak. "Paonia has a bunch of fighters. They never give up and will come out firing."
The message going into the game was defense, said senior Eli Kirk. "They shoot the three ball well, so we had to shut that down."
While they won the game and the defense did its job in the paint, the plan didn't go well, said Hollembeak. The idea was to prevent seniors Sean Devlin and Enoch Kropp from shooting threes. "They're two really good ball players," said Hollembeak. "I give credit to them."
Hotchkiss scored early and often, and never relinquished the lead. Jonathan Gonzalez, who scored eight points in the first quarter, opened the game with two consecutive 3-point goals. In the second quarter, Hotchkiss attacked the rim and held Paonia to four goals and 10 points to take a 37-25 halftime lead.
Paonia trailed, 35-49, to start the fourth period and narrowed the lead to five points on two goals by Sean Devlin. In the final minutes of the game, point guard Sam Rodriguez hit 11 of 12 free throws to secure the win for the Bulldogs. With every shot, he said, "I was ready to hit the next one."
"It's huge to have a point guard that can shoot the free throws well," said Hollembeak.
It felt good to win this game, said Kirk. "But I definitely don't want to be done yet. Our season has a long way to go."
In semifinals, Hotchkiss defeated No. 1 seed Rangely, 59-46, to advance to the championship game against Meeker. The upset came on the heels of a 10-point league loss to the 15-7 Panthers on Feb. 2.
Paonia clinched the regional berth on a 66-63 win over Plateau Valley, with Sean Devlin scoring a 3-point shot at the buzzer for the win. In consolation semifinals the Eagles defeated Vail Mountain, 61-43
Of the 32 teams vying for a state berth, Paonia is seeded 19th. It travels to Ault this Friday to face No. 14 Del Norte in the Region 3 tournament at Highland High School.
The winner will face either third seeded Highland or No. 30 Front Range Christian.
Hotchkiss is seeded 22 and will open the Region 6 tournament at Ignacio this Friday night against No. 11 Limon (16-5, 3-0).