PARACHUTE - Mike Johnson has been to this proverbial dance before.
Grand Valley High School's girls basketball team has seen plenty of success during the 13 years he's been coaching the Cardinals. His 2008 team was oh-so-close to winning the Class 2A state title - falling to Wray 48-47 in the state title game - and Grand Valley has been to the regional round of the 3A tournament in every season since the school moved up a classification.
But the Cardinals haven't been to the proverbial "Big Dance," the "Great 8," since it joined the 3A classification. Johnson and his team would love nothing more than for that to change this weekend.
"This is our fifth straight year of getting to the regional round," Johnson said. "This team would love nothing more than to make it to Fort Collins. So I'm at a point where I'd like to see us move on. Let's get past this. Let's advance and just do what we're supposed to do."
The 24th-seeded Cardinals (15-7) will have that chance on Friday. They'll play Bishop Machebeuf (16-5), a traditional state power at the 3A level and the No. 9 seed in the state tournament, at 5 p.m. Friday at Eaton High School.
The winner of that first-round matchup will move on to the regional final against either No. 25-seeded Roaring Fork (13-9) or No. 8 Eaton (15-7) at 1 p.m. Saturday for a trip to the Elite 8 in Moby Arena at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Granted, it won't be easy. Machebeuf has won six state championships - the last coming in 2007 when it beat Basalt 57-46 for the title - and has been a return contender each of the past two years. Eaton lost to Faith Christian in last year's state title game, and incentive based on proximity alone would almost make a trip to Fort Collins for the Reds equal to a home game.
Then there's Roaring Fork, which has four state championships of its own to boast of and, more recently, handed Grand Valley a 45-38 loss in the 3A Western Slope League District Tournament third-place game at Palisade High School this past Saturday.
Those factors are too much for Johnson and the Cardinals to ignore, but there's plenty of things to go in Grand Valley's favor. One, Johnson said, is the competitive balance in 3A this year, where only a few teams stand apart from everyone else in the state tournament field.
Case in point: Roaring Fork lost 39-38 to eventual district champion Moffat County in the district semifinals this past Friday. Moffat County will host a regional round of the state tournament in Craig this weekend as the No. 5 seed. The Rams, as a result, wound up with a lower tournament seed than Grand Valley.
"If you take three teams out of the field, there are 20 to 25 other teams that would be very, very capable of beating each other," Johnson said.
The Cardinals are capable of beating Roaring Fork, since they did it twice prior to their loss to the Rams last Saturday. But the primary focus for Grand Valley now, even though the Cardinals love the possibility of playing Roaring Fork again, is on a Machebeuf team they'll face on Friday.
Machebeuf had won seven of its past eight games prior to losing 59-46 to Holy Family in the Denver Metro League District tournament title game on Saturday. The Buffaloes average 52.5 points per game - just a hair more than the Cardinals' 49.3 point average - and average 26.5 rebounds and 8.2 steals per contest.
Machebeuf's scoring comes primarily through two seniors: guard Aisha May (15.2 PPG) and Danna Jenkins (13.8 PPG).
That matches up well with Grand Valley, however, as juniors Haley Johnson (11.9 PPG) and Ashlynn Speakman (8.2 PPG) have handled the scoring load lately. The Cardinals, however, have diversity when it comes to the long shot. Four players - Johnson (41), Speakman (35), Rocio Roman (23) and Kyra Chenoweth (10) - have all proven they can hit shots from beyond the 3-point line.
Mike Johnson is hoping that will be enough to tip the proverbial scales in his team's favor, especially after what the coach called a "disappointing" weekend at the district tournament.
"Any time you play in a tournament game like that and lose, you hope you're mature enough to learn from it," the coach said. "We played some of our best basketball for one half in some of those games, and then we came back in the next half and we're terrible. All we have to do now is finish. We're capable of doing that."