Devils were state’s best 20 years ago
Twenty years ago, the Eagle Valley High School boys’ basketball team ran the table.Over the course of the 1984 – 1985 basketball season, 12 guys and two fiery coaches went undefeated en route to a Class A – 1 State Championship and a 23 – 0 record. It was a season unlike any before or since for Devils basketball; and one that players, coaches, faculty, family and fans will never forget.Looking back, the team remembers being a tight-knit group of guys, who really loved being together on and off the court. Current EVHS Athletics Director Dave Scott was in his fourth year of coaching boys’ basketball when they made the run at the title.”I think what I remember most is that they were a great bunch of kids that meshed really well together,” said Scott. “They were very coachable and respectful. We had a lot of different guys who could beat you.”That was evident right away, as the team marched through the start of their regular season. They won two tournaments early on. After an 81 – 51 thrashing of Battle Mountain High School, the boys knew they had something special.
The squad had a well-balanced attack, and the ability to get out in transition. They played good defense, and employed the full-court press often. What they really liked to do, though, was run.”If Rich Rodriguez or Chris Fedrizzi got a rebound, we would start running full speed towards the other end of the court,” recalled point guard John Harris. “We would have five guys running up and down the court, and we got a lot of easy baskets that way.”They also had a pure shooter and athlete in Rich “Hadji” Rodriguez. Harris got “Hadji” the ball when the offense sputtered.”Rich had a beautiful shot, he was real smooth,” said Harris. “He was easy to play with. He kind of glided down the court you always knew where he was going to be.”Despite his pure basketball ability, Rodriguez remembers having his off games. The rest of the team was well-suited to pick up the slack.If opponents double-teamed Rodriguez, Mark Shields would pick up the scoring. Fedrizzi was a constant presence on the boards for the Devils, but he could also lead the team in scoring. Jeremy Fordham and James Canady also had the ability to score points in bunches, when needed.”It was always a team effort,” said Rodriguez. “We never relied on just one or two guys to score. We had four guys averaging double digits in scoring.”In addition to the scorers, the team had no shortage of role players. Senior Les Ware, a co-captain with Rodriguez, was one of the team’s quiet heroes. The bench was deep, and Coach Scott used it. Other reserves included Jeff Hudspeth, Matt Heller and David Rude.”I think with our style of play, I had to use the bench,” said Scott, whose assistant Danny Reynolds would nudge the head coach when a player needed a break. “The guys would not have survived otherwise.”Heller recalls the team’s pressure defense suffocating opponents, and said their man-to-man offense was virtually “unstoppable.” The Devils averaged 76 points per game, and often scored in the 80s. All this in an era before the three-point line.”We had a press called ‘the mosquito press’ that teams had a hard time with,” said Heller. “A lot of times, between our press and our shooting, we would have the game won by the end of the first quarter.”
By the end of January, the team had stretched its record to 11 – 0, with an 84 – 69 win over Sorocco, and a 76 – 49 win over Plateau Valley. By the beginning of February, the team was ranked number one in the state. They were one of just three teams their size in Colorado with an undefeated record.”The main thing was we didn’t know we were as good as we were,” said Fedrizzi. “We just went along and played. I remember when I first heard we were ranked in the state, and I was surprised.”The teams’ lack of circumstantial awareness helped keep the pressure off down the stretch. In their minds, they were just a bunch of friends playing ball.”I don’t remember pressure,” said Harris. “I remember excitement. With each win we got closer to our goal of winning state.”To achieve their goal, the team first had to get to state. That was easier said than done 20 years ago, recalls Pete Nolan, who was athletics director at the time.”Back then, only one team from your district made state,” said Nolan. “We had to play a real good Basalt team in Basalt for the district championship. It was a wild one.”The 19 – 0 Devils had gotten to the district final versus Basalt by beating Rangely 77 – 66. Fedrizzi paced the Devils in that contest with 33 points.The game against Basalt had added significance. The year before the Devils had lost to Basalt in districts, and revenge was on the team’s mind.The game was back-and-forth the whole way. Every time the Devils would pull away on the scoring of Fedrizzi, Rodriguez and Shields, Basalt would come right back. With less than two minutes to go, EVHS found themselves clinging to a one-point lead.With 45 seconds left, Fedrizzi banked one in giving the Devils a 63 – 59 lead. They added one point from the line to secure the 64 – 61 win.The Colorado Gore League champions were now Class A – 1 District champs. They were off to the state tournament for the first time in school history, and were one of just eight teams left competing for the state title.
The Devils entered the state tournament in Colorado Springs with a 20 – 0 record. In the first round they drew Colorado Springs Christian. It was their toughest game of the year. The Devils got out to a slow start, and the game stayed close for all four quarters.”There were some real nervous moments in that game,” said Harris. “Throughout the season, even in our bad games, we still pulled together and would win pretty comfortably.”Not so in the opening round at state. The game went to overtime…barely.”A kid on CSC had a chance to win at the line in regulation,” recalled Scott. “He was something like 12 for 12 from the line in the game. He hit his first to tie the game, but the second one went in and out.” In the overtime period, with CSC doubling Rodriguez, the depth of this team came shining through. Ware, who had been a quiet contributor all year, came through in the clutch with six points in OT. The team did not miss a shot in the three-minute overtime. Shields led all scorers with 21 points, and Ware finished the game with 19, as the Devils held on and won.”Les was our MVP in that one,” remembered Harris.In their second game at state, the Devils beat Strasbourg 83 – 52. The team shot an unbelievable 73 percent from the field, returning to their regular season formula of blowing teams away.”Once we had come through that first round game, it went pretty smooth,” said Harris. Heller, Rude and Hudspeth helped off the bench in the semifinal game when Harris, Fedrizzi and Shields got in foul trouble.And then there was oneIn the final game, the Devils capped the season off with a 76 – 63 win over Julesberg. The team did what they had done all year. They played good defense, and got out and ran the court. Their balanced scoring showed up in the final box score as Fedrizzi had 26 points, Ware had 17, Rodriguez scored 13, and Canady accounted for eight.Harris described the waning seconds of the championship game as “the best feeling of my life … until I had kids,” he adds quickly.”We were standing out there and we knew we were going to win, and all of our fans were chanting undefeated,” said Harris. “I was in shock at first. It seemed like the whole towns of Eagle and Gypsum were there.”They might have been, according to Nolan, who says this team was as popular as any he has been associated with at EVHS.”They were a fun team to watch because of how they played,” said Nolan. “They were great kids and they had great parents and friends supporting them. I think that was one of the keys to their success.”Fedrizzi bumped into his former coach the other day, and the two were in disbelief that this magical season occurred 20 years ago. The championship’s importance to the team, the community and the school will linger in Devils lore forever.”Any time you get to the position we got to, you feel lucky,” said Fedrizzi. “The team and the friendships you form, it was a magical thing. To be fortunate enough to win it all on top of that is amazing.”
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.Vail, Colorado