GLENWOOD SPRINGS - The Vail Christian faithful bellowed the news eloquently.
"On to state."
"On to state."
Saints boys basketball is doing just that after a 44-34 win over Deer Trail at regionals Saturday in Glenwood Springs. Vail Christian is going to the 1A state basketball tournament for the first time in school history. The draw comes out on chsaa.org today and the Saints (18-4) are headed to 1stBank Center in Broomfield Thursday.
"Gosh, I said a long time ago that we had to break that tradition on not getting through districts and now we're going to state," senior Zach Linder said.
"I'm kind of speechless. We're going to state, man," Vail Christian coach Sheldon Kuhns said.
"I remember Broomfield," Gunnar Wilson joked.
Yo, Gunnar, the Broomfield game in the state semifinals for Battle Mountain soccer was actually in Parker, but we get the point.
The Saints were clearly a little jumpy on offense early, missing good looks and easy lay-ins. But, as has been the theme this year, the defense was stellar. While Vail Christian has been trying to shore up the defense, well, for the last few years, the turning point that set the stage for Saturday came in practice on Jan. 27 after a win at Soroco.
That was the "33 practice," when the Saints just ran, according to Kuhns. It refocused the team, and, after a Feb. 1 loss to Paonia, Vail Christian ditched the full-court press and just focused on guarding opponents.
That all worked perfectly against Deer Trail.
"We haven't been putting the bubble on recently. It's sort of a given," Wilson said. "We have to play defense to win in the playoffs."
Wilson, Linder and Kevin Boselli among others crushed the boards. The Eagles didn't have second chances on offense. The Saints were also tenacious in their half-court defense. In the second half, Nigel Johnson and Wilson took turns covering Deer Trail's Preston Turecek, who was averaging 19 points per game.
And Austin Ellsworth took two charges as well as two other key fouls late.
"Not much different from football," said Ellsworth, who lines up under center during the fall. "No pads, though."
Leading 18-11 at the half, Robby Bowles canned a 3 and Wilson followed with a layup on a nice pass from Linder for a 24-13 lead. Deer Trail stayed close with two of three banked treys in the second half coming in the third quarter.
The Eagles closed to 27-26 with 7:48 left in the game. A minute later, Wilson took an inbounds pass and went straight up for the layup and a 29-26 lead. Linder struck with his patented baseline jumper and Bowles hit from 13 feet to up the margin to 33-26.
Meanwhile, Ellsworth taking fouls was big because the Saints were on the wrong end of an 8-3 margin in team fouls early in the fourth. By the time Ellsworth went to the line, the Saints were in the bonus and he sank both ends of a 1-and-1. This was the start of a terrific trend. Vail Christian was a sparkling 9-for-10 from the stripe in the fourth quarter.
"Big time," Kuhns said.
And that pleased the Saints fans who were out in force. Saturday's game may have been at a neutral site in Glenwood, but Vail Christian fans, clad in newly-minted district championship T-shirts swamped those in Deer Trail red.
"It was awesome," Ellsworth said. "That was the best fan turnout we've had."
Vail Christian now needs the answer to two questions. No. 1 is, "What seed?" All but two of the top seeds in each regional around the state won Saturday. The only upsets were Norwood downing Elbert earlier in the day at Glenwood and Holly of Le Veta in Pueblo.
Logic would dictate that the Saints have to be at least No. 7 because they beat Norwood last weekend at the district tournament. Kuhns said he was thinking Nos. 6 or 7.
The other issue is cranking up the Vail Christian offense for state, which falls under the category of "irony can be very ironic."
"Who would have ever thought? Exactly," Kuhns said. "What we're looking for is to get the old Vail Christian team of 70 points (on offense) with we're only going to give you 25 or 30 points (on defense)."
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.