Jon Mitchell

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February 20, 2013
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Bears hot as district tourney starts tonight

Rifle High School's boys basketball team is riding an eight-game winning streak going into the Class 4A Western Slope League/Southwestern League District Tournament.

The Bears haven't lost a game in more than a month. Their average margin of victory has come by double digits, save Rifle's 42-41 victory at Delta on Jan 25. What's more, the Bears have twice - twice! - shut out an opponent in the first quarter during this stretch.

So there's a lot of confidence for Rifle headed into its quarterfinal-round match-up against Steamboat Springs at 4:30 p.m. today at Grand Junction Central High School, right?

"Actually, I try not to think about it," said a smiling coach Roger Walters during practice earlier this week. "I'm kind of superstitious."

Regardless, things have been working for the Rifle boys (11-8 overall) as they head into districts, which run today through Saturday in Grand Junction. The Rifle girls (13-6 overall) will also play Steamboat Springs in a quarterfinal matchup, with game time set for 6 p.m. today at Central.

The winner between the Rifle and Steamboat Springs boys will play either Battle Mountain (9-11) - a 54-52 play-in game winner Tuesday against Montezuma-Cortez - or top-seeded Durango (14-5) at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The winner between the Steamboat Springs and Rifle girls will play either Eagle Valley or Delta at 6 p.m. Friday. All games Friday and Saturday will be played at Brownson Arena in Grand Junction.

Losers of today's games will drop into a consolation bracket but will still have a chance to reach the Class 4A State Tournament. The top seven finishers in the tournament earn a trip to state.

Rifle's boys squad, which opened its Western Slope League campaign 1-6, finished fourth in the league standings with an 8-6 record (a nonleague win over Paonia has been part of their run). Even when things weren't going well for Rifle right after the holiday break, Walters wasn't about to push the proverbial panic button.

"We always talk about how when things are going good, it's always easy to be a good person," Walters said. "You find your true character when things aren't going well. There wasn't a night when things weren't going well that they didn't come into the gym trying to get better."

Tanner Quick, a 6-foot-5 junior, has set much of the pace for Rifle. His 10.8 points-per-game average leads the team, as does his seven rebounds per game and 37 blocked shots. Twenty-four of those blocked shots have come in the Bears' six February games.

"Our attitudes have changed," Quick said. "We came into the season with crummy attitudes because we hadn't had very good seasons in the past. Now, with our new system, there's been a completely different mindset on how bad we want to win."

Rifle's girls haven't had any trouble winning in past seasons. The Bears had only lost a combined seven games during the 2011-2012 and 2010-2011 seasons, with four of those losses coming in the Class 3A State Championships in Fort Collins.

Not that the 2012-2013 season hasn't been good. The Bears, despite jumping up a classification to 4A this season, still finished second in the WSL standings to Delta (16-3), which wound up seeded second in the district tournament.

That experience, however, may not be as big of a factor as some might think.

"Honestly for me, every year is a new year, and I don't see that as an advantage," Rifle girls coach Rick Schmitz said. "Nobody is going to care about that playoff experience (tonight). Steamboat is definitely not going to care."

Steamboat Springs and the rest of the district field may need to care about Chante Church and Joey Kuheim. Church, a junior, is averaging 17.2 points per game, increasing her scoring production as the season has progressed. Kuheim is averaging 11.2 points to go with her 7.1 rebounds per game, which was good enough for third best in the WSL behind Delta's Callie Gifford (9.9) and Eagle Valley's Taylor Martin (8.2).

The obvious focus now, however, is the Bears' game against Steamboat Springs today. A win would be the third victory for Rifle over the Sailors this season.

"We're putting in a few new things, because coach says since it's hard to beat a team three times in a season," Kuheim said. "But it doesn't matter that we've beat them twice already. We just can't overlook anyone."

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The Post Independent Updated Feb 20, 2013 05:58PM Published Feb 20, 2013 05:55PM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.