PUEBLO-For one weekend each March, Pueblo becomes the City of Champions when the three-day CHSAA State Basketball Tournament and all its competing squads roll into town.
"It's.a great feeling," said Ignacio senior guard Clayton Jefferson. "Just got to work hard; when you get here.it's worth it once you get here."
"It's tough," concurred senior forward Kelton Richmond. "Last time I was here I was a freshman, didn't play much. And then, two years of not making it.you just want to get back here and win it all."
"All these games mean everything; you never know if it's going to be your last win, last loss, whatever," senior center Justin Carver added. "You've just got to go out there and play with your heart."
And though the Bobcats did from arrival to departure, an upset loss on Day 2 denied IHS basketball its second state title. Determined not to leave without a trophy, however, Ignacio recovered to take third in 2014 with a Day 3 triumph over Parker-based Lutheran. It was their 25th win, with just one defeat this season.
"I'm not going to take anything away from what they did," head coach Chris Valdez said, following the setback to Sanford, "and I'm not going to take anything away from what we did this season. Our kids went 24-0 [starting the season].our school has never done that, you know?"
"I think the best, final four teams were in this 'Final Four."
"You know, honestly, making it this far with this team being so close," said senior reserve guard Sam Corrado, "I think it means a lot more than I've ever expected."
"It means a lot," sophomore guard Wyatt Hayes said of the state experience. "We have to get stronger and more physical, because up here.they [referees] don't call as much. But if we put in the work in the offseason we can do it next year!"
In last Thursday's Great Eight game, IHS downed a better-than-expected Sedgwick County squad 49-33, with the Cougars clawing back to as close as 28-29. The Bobcats had led 16-8 after one quarter and 27-22 through two. In the third quarter sophomore Anthony Manzanares countered with a crucially-timed three, Richmond followed promptly with a finger-roll, and top-seeded Ignacio forged themselves a 40-30 lead over the tourney's #8 team.
Junior Adison Jones' 14 points paced the 'Cats, Richmond had eight, Manzanares seven and Carver five.
"They pressured us, got within one possession-I think it was-and I thought we kept our composure," Jones said. "Just battled back, ended up taking the lead. In the regular season we hadn't been tested any, and I felt it was good to be tested."
But against eventual champions Sanford, the answers were fewer and more scattered in a 47-37 loss.
"Our defense did enough, but we didn't score offensively," Valdezsaid afterwards. "Defense is still doing the job, you know. They still weren't in the 50s scoring-wise! We've still got to put some points on the board; you can't score two points in a first quarter."
Jones' basket with 2:28 left in the first quarter finally got Ignacio on the board.
Sanford led 28-21 going into the fourth quarter, and then led 30-21. And free throws would greatly aid the Indians down the stretch; SHS was 11-of-13 in the final frame alone, while Ignacio wasn't granted a single attempt until Jefferson sank two with just 0:44 remaining.
Jones' 10 points paced IHS, Manzanares had seven, and Richmond and Carver six each. "We got a little comeback going, and then when we got within seven points.on an inbounds pass, they get an easy layup. Or we somehow miss a switch and give up a wide-open shot," said Valdez. "So you can't do that and expect to beat a quality team."
"We just didn't come out as physical; they were just pushing and getting more boards.and just outplayed us physically. We came here to play basketball.got one more game so we're going to go out and put it on the line for our last game of the year."
That was against the Lutheran Lions, playing for third place at state.
LHS junior Brendan Edgerley made a three to open the game, then Jones immediately answered in kind, and Hayes then followed from deep in succession. Lutheran had to know they were getting the 'Ignacio' which the Sanford Indians didn't.
That was Lutheran's only lead.
Jones (14 points) and Hayes (20) each drained another trey in the first, and Jefferson (13) also sank a bomb in helping IHS take a 21-15 lead after eight incendiary minutes, and ultimately a 59-50 victory.
"The way we adjusted from going against the 1-3-1 to the man-to-man without losing a step today.really showed what this team is really capable of," said Valdez.
"We knew it was our seniors' last game, so we all-we were going to give it our best shot to finish the season with a win. A GOOD win," said sophomore guard Tucker Ward. "It was.just another team in the tournament that we had to go through."
But the Lions weren't about to simply grant revenge for 2013's season-ending loss-in Durango at regionals-to IHS on a silver platter.
Keeping themselves alive with 11-of-15 free-throw accuracy during Quarters 1 and 2, compared to the Bobcats' 1-of-4, the boys from Parker trailed by just three points, 29-26, at halftime.
"It was good," said Hayes. "We weren't used to the gym the first two days, and when we got used to it.we wanted to play for our seniors tonight. So it was good."
Added Jefferson: "We just talked about the game, really, but there was nothing we could do," Jefferson said, about the aftermath of Friday's loss. "So we just decided to be us-goofy teenagers-and stay loose."
"They'd knocked us out of it-from going to State-before," senior reserve John House said fo the Lions. "Today we were a lot more relaxed, not as tight."
Richmond scored seven for Ignacio, Manzanares and soph Nick Herrera two each and Ward one.
"I was proud of them," Valdez. Said. "And I just told the kids how much.I loved them, and I appreciated how hard they'd worked also."
"I've believed in them all year and I'm behind them all the way."
"It's an awesome feeling," House said of the entire event. "Something to be proud of."