Vail Mountain boys basketball win district title over Vail Christian
Gore Rangers and Saints will compete in region tournament March 4-5
Prognosticators always knew it would come to this.
At 17-3, Vail Mountain School boys basketball is having their best season ever.
Down valley, Vail Christian recently dedicated its gym to the current longtime coaching stalwart Sheldon Kuhns, who, despite dealing with nagging injuries on his squad, could be counted on to have the 14-8 Saints ready come tournament time.
District title on the line between valley rivals? “You can’t really ask for a better storybook ending to the regular season,” said Gore Rangers head coach Caleb Florence, whose club came out with the 61-53 victory last Saturday, earning home court hosting rights for this week’s region tournaments, which run March 4-5.
The Saints came in hot, upending No. 1 seeded Meeker 62-55 in a tight semifinal last Friday to set up the third encounter of the year with the Gore Rangers, who defeated No. 3 Plateau Valley 45-32 on the other side of the bracket.
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“Both teams know each other very well. I don’t think there was a whole lot of cloak and dagger with this game,” VMS coach Caleb Florence admitted. The sharp-shooting Saints’ agenda was to win from the outside while the longer Gore Rangers planned to slash and push the ball inside.
The result was a track meet first quarter as both teams’ heavy hitters pulled out all the stops. Quinn Downey drilled three quick 3-pointers for the run-and-gun Saints and Cole Pattison, who entered the game with gaudy 16.2 points per game and 7.9 rebounds per game averages, scored 11 points of his own for VMS.
Shutting down Downey, who drained eight triples in the first game of the playoffs; was critical for the Gore Rangers, who extended their signature 2-3 zone to ensure a hand was always in the junior guard’s face, no matter where he dialed in from. It worked: he would connect just once more the rest of the way.
“He’s a kid with impressive range,” said Florence, whose team didn’t see the then-injured Saint when the programs faced off Feb. 5, a 54-39 VMS win. “I knew that he was going to be another weapon that they were going to be able to tap into.”
The Saints only made two field goals in the second quarter and were shut out in the third entirely, a devasting stretch that led to a 21-point Gore Ranger lead going into the final period. Vail Mountain’s Beck Sapp led the charge, going off for nine of his 14 points in the third. Vail Christian didn’t give up easily, however, as a night of big momentum swings took a final turn.
Vail Christian’s Vinny Nowicki poured in 12 of his 14 points in the fourth, leading a 25-point barrage in the final eight minutes. At one point, the gap was five.
“Just a great contest — both teams fought until the final buzzer,” said Florence. ”We didn’t handle the pressure well, but we had enough composure to get us to the finish line.” Multisport star Nick Kirwood’s play as the court general was a big reason. The SSCV ski star chipped in 12 points while running the point.
“He’s just a great athlete,” Florence said, noting that his pupil’s athleticism and speed allow his team to apply pressure on defense as well as open up their lethal transition game. Kirwood, who qualified for the U18 Alpine National Championships — which fortunately are taking place on his home hill at Golden Peak — will be busy on Friday and Saturday. He may end up skiing in the morning and hitting the hardwood in the evening.
“We feel really fortunate that we were able to host,” Florence said, noting that the district champions across Colorado host each of the eight four-team region playoffs. The Gore Rangers have never been in the 2A ‘elite eight,’ though they made the COVID-altered 28-team “state” tournament last year.
“We’ve never won a regional tournament, so it would be huge to just get to state,” the coach declared.
Vail Christian earned the No. 16 seed and will play No. 17 Rye at 7 p.m. on Friday. Rye (15-7) is coming off of a one-point loss to Crowley County in their district final. A win would mean a date — most likely — with No. 1 Yuma, whose only blemish on their 20-1 record was a double-overtime loss to Eaton on Dec. 18.
Meanwhile, No. 4 Vail Mountain School will play No. 29 Lyons. They would play the winner of No. 13 Lotus School For Excellence and No. 20 Ignacio. Region title games are Saturday at 2 p.m. at the various venues.
“Every game from here on out is going to be a challenging game,” Florence stated, refusing to look past Friday’s opponent.
“I really like this group of boys and they’re focused and competitive and playing really well right now. It should be an exciting weekend.”