Paonia head basketball coach Chase Roeber knew ahead of post season play that there would be no easy games on the road to the state tournament. Of top seven teams vying for the 2A District 5 title, the tournament could go to any of them, said Roeber. "They're all right there."
But that's the way it should be, said Roeber. "You get into post-season play and it should be tough. Show up or go home."
Of the three district games they played, the closest was in quarterfinals. After beating No. 7 seeded Rangely by 30 points a week earlier to end the regular season, Paonia beat the Panthers, 60-54.
The team knew Rangely had one player who could beat them, said Roeber. Patrick Scoggins averages 16 points and 9 rebounds per game. Despite heavy defensive coverage, he scored 20 points. "We did everything we could" to stop him, said Roeber. "He played hard."
The Eagles scored 18 points from the free throw line. Center Dagan Rienks led scoring with 22 points and guard Colby Simpson scored 18 points, including 11 points from the line. Triston Mautz scored 10 points.
In Friday's semifinal game at DeBeque High School, the Eagles defeated Hotchkiss, 68-33. "We played solid," said Simpson. "Our defense really stepped up, especially in the first half." In the fourth quarter they allowed Hotchkiss two points.
In Saturday's championship game the Eagles outscored Meeker, 62-31. "We played good defensively and that led to good offense," said Simpson, who scored 14 points, including two three-pointers. "It was fun."
Players knew after a poor second half almost cost them the win over Meeker three weeks earlier that they needed to keep the momentum up for the entire game. Paonia put 24 points on the board in the third. Slater Podgorny scored his six points for the game in the third. Senior Trevor Smith, who a week earlier won the state heavyweight wrestling title, came off the bench to score the first three-pointer of his career in the third period.
Rienks spread his 24 points out over four quarters, including a late-game three-pointer.
Since about the sixth grade Rienks and Simpson have spent countless hours practicing in the gym. Rienks grew up with basketball. A picture of his dad, girls coach Scott Rienks, hangs in the DeBeque gym with his 1997-1998 state champion Dragons team. It's DeBeque's only state title.
At some point in sixth or seventh grade, said Simpson, they knew they had something pretty special going. Last year they finished eighth at state, but this season, the hard work and time are paying off, not just for them, "but for the whole team," said Simpson, one of seven seniors for Paonia.
Simpson and Rienks have averaged a combined 38.3 points per game.
Paonia was undefeated in league play and had a 17-2 season record going into the tournament. With each game this season the team has improved, said Roeber. One of the biggest changes is in their energy. "We've got better energy in everything we do," including in practice. The team is also working to tighten up its defense.
Those improvements really showed in the tournament. Paonia beat Meeker by eight in regular-season play, with Meeker outscoring them in the second half. "We played a pretty solid first half" but lost focus in the second, said Rienks.
"We started to realize that it's the playoffs and we've got to step up and play a full game instead of a half," said Simpson.
Mautz, who has averaged 10.8 points per game this season, scored 12 and shot 3 for 3 from the line against Meeker. He battles at the glass against the bigger players, said Simpson. The whole team is stepping up.
On Saturday, No. 2 Del Norte will face the winner of the Ridgway/Meeker game being played at 1 p.m. Friday, and No. 3 Ignacio will face the winner of the Rangely/Sanford game scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday.
In the Western Region bracket, Paonia earned a first-round bye. It will face the winners of Friday's game between No. 6 Telluride and No. 9 Center. The winner will play next week in the state tournament.
The team still has a lot of hard work ahead, said Rienks, but it's ready. "These last two games have just shown us a little of what we can do."