GUNNISON — Welcome back, boys.
Vail Christian boys basketball is back in the 1A state tournament after dumping Primero, 69-48, in Saturday’s regional game at Gunnison. The Saints play Hi-Plains on Thursday at 1:15 p.m. at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland.
“With about two minutes to go, that’s when it started sinking in,” senior Cooper Gould said. “We’re really excited to go to state, especially two years in a row.”
It’s the second year in a row Vail Christian has been one of the last eight 1A teams standing, and let’s stop right there.
Not only is Vail Christian going to state for a second consecutive year, once a laughable concept, but the Saints just retooled on the run this season. They graduated every starter from this past year’s state team.
“I’m pretty excited right now. I don’t have words, “ said Parker Poage, who now holds the record for most 3-pointers in a season at Vail Christian. “Last year at state was kind of a downer for me. Everyone was congratulating me and all I was doing was sitting on the bench. Now, I have something to be proud of.”
“The heart of this team is never giving up,” said a jubilant Vail Christian coach Sheldon Kuhns. “Even when we were down, 17-4, nobody gave up. Maybe, this team isn’t as talented as last year’s team, but they’ve matched what they did last year. I’m proud of them. They’re a fun group to coach. They play for each other, their school and God.”
The final score said this was an easy game, but it did not start well. Primero’s Josiah Sanchez went nuts in the first quarter. The Bulldogs point guard knocked down three 3s and had 11 points total in the first eight minutes as Primero leapt out to a 17-4 lead.
The Saints started to chip away with two free throws and a bank shot from Branden Currey and a well-timed trey from Poage at the end of the period.
And as Saints fans know, when Poage gets going, it’s a good thing. Double-aught started the second quarter with two more from downtown and Currey also had a put back.
“We were in too much of a hurry,” Kuhns said. “(Primero was) in a zone defense. They did what we thought they were going to do. We didn’t reverse the ball and we shot too quickly. We slowed down on offense and started to get the ball inside.”
Gould is gold
Lost in fireworks was that more than the usual suspects (Currey, Poage and Ellsworth, who left the game in the second quarter with an ankle sprain) were starting to play big roles.
Cooper Gould, whose name has been mispronounced as Gold the last two weeks on assorted radio broadcasts, was, in fact, golden on Saturday. He had 15 points and 14 rebounds, thank you very much.
“Unfortunately, Sug (Ellsworth) rolled his ankle,” Gould said. “I knew I had to pick it up on the offensive and the defensive end, and I was able to do that.”
Alex Davis sank two free throws giving the Saints a 22-21 lead. After Sanchez had a layup, Ethan Pence hit a 3, which gave the Saints the lead for good at 25-23.
The Saints were also starting to move the ball well on the offensive end as the open shots started to become available. Poage cut to the hole, on a great pass from Currey, and later had another 3.
As Vail Christian started to roll, Primero came out of its zone and played a man-to-man-defense, increasing the pace of the game. And that was playing right into Vail Christian’s hands.
Leading 32-25 at the half, the Saints pounded the ball into Currey. When Currey got his fourth foul and had to sit, the Saints played a little high-low with Gould and Davis, respectively.
And if the inside is working for Vail Christian, Poage is usually open on the outside. The senior finished the third with two more 3s and Vail Christian was cruising at 52-47.
The Saints weren’t blowing a fourth-quarter lead on Saturday. They were 7-for-10 (Davis, Poage, Pence and Currey) from the line during the final eight minutes. Poage finished with 24 points, followed by Currey with 17.
While he didn’t have any points, Logan Raitt also had a big game off the bench, playing the best minutes of career.
“Unbelievable team performance,” Kuhns said.
The only downer of the day was Ellsworth’s ankle sprain. He did not return to the game after getting hurt, and it takes quite a bit to keep him out.
“I’m holding out hope he’ll play (at state), if there’s any way possible,” Kuhns said. “It’s disappointing to be this far in the season to have this happen. At halftime, the guys said, ‘Let’s get this one for Sug,’ and they did.”
“Sug is one of ‘The Three Basketeers’ with me and Branden,” Poage said. “When he went down, it was like, ‘Oh, man, what’s in store for us?’ It all worked out. Hopefully, we’ll get him better and have him for state. We’ll get him a wheel chair and roll him around the halls of Vail Christian.”
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @cfreud.