Her team virtually unchallenged in the 2A District 3 tournament by outclassed San Juan Basin League familiars, Ignacio girls basketball head coach Justa Whitt knows any sort of complacency this weekend could be a season-killer.
“It’s really going to put us to the test if we have come to the point where we hope we are,” she said Wednesday night, anticipating Friday’s 2A Region 8 tournament to be held inside IHS Gymnasium.
The Bobcats (15-6) will begin the two-day, single-elimination spectacle against Rangely (10-12) at 6 p.m., with Burlington (10-13) looking to upset Wray (17-3) at 7:30 p.m. in an eastern plains showdown.
The winners will then square off at 11 a.m. Saturday for the right to advance to the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland and the eight-team Class 2A State Championships.
“It’s definitely exciting that we’re going to get some tough teams,” said Whitt, reminded that three (Ignacio, Rangely and Wray) of the four competing crews all made it to last year’s state tournament.
Wray qualified after having lost to Paonia in the 2017 state championship and placing fourth in 2016. In ’18, Rangely contended for the title for the first time since 2002.
“We all know, and our returning players know, what it takes to make it out of a regional,” Rangely head coach Jimmie Mergelman said Thursday morning via email. “Ignacio and Rangely both hosted last year and know the importance of home court advantage. Not having to travel six-plus hours to reach a destination and the ability to eat at home and sleep in your own bed leads to success on the court.
“Also, the ability to shoot in your own gym versus a team that has never played in your gym makes a difference.”
Under former skipper Vanessa Einspahr, Burlington finished one win short of qualifying for state last year, as the Cougars — guided this season by Donna Williams — lost to Limon in the Region 3 finale.
Head to head this winter to date, Wray has won both meetings with Burlington — a 63-31 rout Dec. 6 at the three-day Topside Tipoff in Goodland, Kansas, and a 59-33 romp Jan. 8 at Wray, which has won four of the teams’ last five meetings overall dating back to the 2016-17 campaign.
Meanwhile, Ignacio last faced Rangely up in Gunnison during Western Regional, Pod H play late in the ’16-17 season and prevailed 47-31 to clinch a state berth — the first for regulars such as current junior forward Makayla Howell and senior guard Kiana Valdez – and an intangible Whitt hopes to stabilize her excitable bunch.
“It’s definitely going to help that we have returning players that have been to the state tournament as of last year,” she said. “You know, we’ve got Makayla, Larissa (Gallegos), Shelcie (Gosney), Jayden (Brunson), Charlize (Valdez), Kiana, that’s six people, and that’s pretty huge to have that many girls that have the experience of playing at this level.
“Hopefully, they can all come together at the right time here and put out their best effort.”
Unlike Ignacio, Rangely’s team does not have much familiarity. But the Panthers are a new-look team, too.
“I think that familiarity will not play much of a factor for Rangely,” said Mergelman, alluding to the teams’ previous meeting. “The starters in our program and the rest of our varsity players were either sophomores or freshmen and even seventh-grade students at the time, so the girls may not have much familiarity with Ignacio.
“Also, myself and my staff are in our second year at the helm with this group and we did not travel to Gunnison to watch, so we are going into the game with what we do best and that is to play our game the Rangely way.”
Whitt is comfortable with the matchup Friday but knows her team can’t look ahead to Saturday.
“The scouting I’ve done for Rangely...it doesn’t seem that they are nearly as strong as they were last year,” Whitt said, “So, that’s a little bit of comfort for me as far as that’s our first game. We’ve got to get past Rangely first and see what happens from there.”
Defensively, Whitt seemed pleased with the work her players put in during last weekend’s district tournament action in Durango, but again stressed the need for the ’Cats to bring pressure even more so offensively.
“That’s been our thing that we’ve been struggling with here these last couple weeks, so we’ve really been hammering on shooting and they’re coming along,” she said. “The last couple days, they’ve improved, so that’s promising.
“We’re hoping to see our 3-point shooters come alive this weekend. But we need every element; we need the inside and outside game, the driving game, we need all of that. We’ve played on the road so much this year, and I think that’s going to be a big boost to the girls to get to have these home games. Playing under pressure, they kind of step up a little bit, so I’m just praying that it all comes together at the right time.”