Tracy Sturgis photo Paonia point guard Carson Pipher drives inside against Del Norte. Pipher is one of five juniors on this year’s varsity squad. Paonia finished the season with an 18-5 overall mark and was 9-0 in the 2A WSL.After last week's district loss to Meeker, Paonia traveled to Durango Friday to compete in the Region 3 tournament. The Lady Eagles advanced to Saturday's finals after a win over Del Norte, but fell short of qualifying for this week's Elite 8 tournament in Pueblo.
The loss to Meeker was tough to take at first, said senior post Abby Campbell, who scored a team-high 20 points for Paonia. "We couldn't hit a shot and they couldn't miss." But following their final practice before boarding the bus to Durango, Campbell said it wasn't all bad. "I think we're better on the road away from the crowd."
Tracy Sturgis photo Tyler Rapke attempts to score over Kassidy Jones of Del Norte in the semifinal game of the Region 3 tournament in Durango. Rapke is one of five seniors and four-year players for Paonia."I think Meeker came out way harder than we were expecting them to," said senior Tyler Rapke, calling the loss humbling. "Not to get cocky, but I think we thought that we were going to have it kind of easy up to regionals and state, so I think it was good that we had a wake-up call."
And Paonia's shooting game had been off since its big win over 4A Rifle in early February, a glitch in its game that would be its downfall. After defeating Del Norte (14-9) Friday, the Lady Eagles lost to Ignacio by four Saturday.
A three-point play by Ignacio point guard Michelle Simmons with 35 seconds left in the game would prove to be the game-changer. "We knew she was good," said Coach Scott Rienks of Simmons. "She can handle the ball, she's fast, and she's got a great jump shot."
Paonia was familiar with Del Norte. A year earlier, they defeated the Tigers in the opening round of the state tournament.
"I think if we play up to our potential that there shouldn't be even a slight chance of a close game," said Rapke before boarding the team bus to Durango last week.
Del Norte matched up well with Paonia in height and experience (both teams have five seniors). Del Norte had a 2-2-1 press that was of concern, but the team had practiced a press-breaker in preparation, said Rapke.
Chelsy Reed's six points in the opening minutes gave Paonia a 10-7 lead at the end of the first period. The Lady Eagles held Del Norte to one field goal in the second, and the Tigers struggled at the free throw line, shooting just one of seven to trail 21-10 at the half.
Abby Campbell fouled out early in the fourth after contributing a team-high 10 points. Reed scored eight, and Paonia finished with a 43-28 win to advance to Saturday's championship game against Ignacio.
Scoring was close from the start. Paonia led 12-11 at the end of the first period. Morgan Hartigan came off the bench to hit a three-point shot and give Paonia a 22-21 lead with 2:30 left in the half. Simmons had a fourth foul called on her midway through the third. After that, said Rienks, Ignacio stuck to a zone defense and pretty much hid her inside it.
Bobcat Pamela Cotton came off the bench to score a three-pointer and give Ignacio a two-point lead at the half.
Tracy Sturgis photo Mandy Bushta looks for an open player in Paonia’s Region 3 win over Del Norte. Paonia lost to Ignacio to end the year.Paonia's defensive game was on. Reed and company forced 34 turnovers on the Bobcats and limited them to two goals in the third period.
But there was that shooting game. Paonia hit only two of 21 in three-point attempts. To make it worse, while they benefited from Ignacio's foul troubles, they shot just seven of 22 from the free throw line, while Ignacio hit 18 of 27 from the line.
Early in the third, Ignacio senior forward Valerie Armstrong hit a three-pointer to give Ignacio an eight-point lead. Paonia put pressure on the Bobcat defense and, with Simmons in foul trouble, shut their scoring game down long enough to take a 36-35 lead going into the final period.
Despite the foul trouble, Simmons racked up 10 points in the fourth, shooting six-for-seven from the line. With the game tied at 49-all and Ignacio shooting in the double bonus, Simmons sank a shot, but was fouled by Carson Pipher, her fifth foul. Simmons hit her free throw, and the Bobcats took a three-point lead with 35 seconds left in the game.
Paonia fouled Cotton, who took advantage of the team's double bonus foul situation, missing her first throw, and sinking her second to pull ahead by four.
"They played hard," said Rienks of his team. "I'm not upset with their effort. They just didn't shoot well."
This was the first regional playoff win for Ignacio in a decade. They were very gracious winners, said Rienks. Many of the team members had tears in their eyes as they thanked Paonia for a good game. Rienks used the moment as an example for his younger players, telling them, "Remember that moment, and make it your motivation for next year."
With last week's elimination of Meeker, Rangely and Hotchkiss from regional competition, there will be no Western Slope teams at this year's state 2A girls' basketball tournament.
In the past, Western Slope teams would compete among themselves for the regional title and a trip to state, said Rienks. But under the new format, where teams are divided up among one of eight regions throughout the state and often paired with much stronge r teams from the Front Range and eastern plains, it's getting harder for Western Slope teams to qualify for the state tournament.
In terms of depth and talent, this should be one of the most competitive state tournaments in history, said Rienks.
Paonia, which won the state title in 2010 and placed fourth in 2012, will try again next year. While they aren't the tallest team, the Lady Eagles have a strong class of underclassmen on the roster. Rienks, who just completed his sixth season at Paonia, anticipates a winning season in 2014. And with a strong middle school program going, "I think I'll have a good team for a few more years."