Great 8 on tap for underdog Coal Ridge
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
FORT COLLINS, Colorado – Coal Ridge girls basketball coach Rick Schmitz has never had a team defy expectations quite like his 2009-10 Titans have.
And he’s been at this coaching thing for some 30 years.
Schmitz’s underdog squad, seeded 27th entering the 32-team Class 3A state playoffs, is playing its best basketball with its back against the wall.
After a rocky regular season and a less-than-stellar, fourth-place showing at the Western Slope League district tournament, Coal Ridge caught fire last weekend.
Despite trailing by 10 points at halftime, the Titans defeated No. 6 Eaton – at Eaton, no less – in the first round of the playoffs on Friday and then took down No. 22 Salida in the Sweet 16 on Saturday.
Embracing the underdog role to the fullest, Coal Ridge is one of 3A’s final eight teams.
The Titans are, by far, the lowest-seeded team at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, site of the state tournament, which begins today and runs through Saturday. With a 13-11 record, they also have as many losses as the state tourney’s seven other teams – combined.
Colorado High School Activities Association Assistant Commissioner Bert Borgmann can’t remember a lower-seeded team ever making the final eight. And he’s been with CHSAA for 22 years.
“This is special,” Schmitz said. “I’ve coached some really good teams, but these guys keep taking things up a notch. They get me believing. You know, that’s what has been so special about it for me, just where we started and where we’re at now. Hopefully, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing and see what happens.”
Schmitz and company open with Olathe this morning at 8:45 a.m. The Titans and Pirates have faced each other three times this season, with Olathe winning all three.
The Titans did deal the 24-0 Pirates their biggest scare of the season, though, taking the Pirates to overtime back on Jan. 23. Playing in Olathe, Coal Ridge had a few good looks at the basket as time ran out in a 44-43 defeat.
After what happened last weekend, just about anything seems possible as far as the Titans are concerned.
“They turned into basketball fighters last weekend, and I mean that in a good way,” Schmitz said. “They were physical on the floor. They went toe to toe every possession, on both ends of the floor. I think that was missing a little bit at the district tournament.”
That fight might have had something to do with the fact that, as a low-seeded team unburdened by weighty expectations, Coal Ridge held nothing back.
“I think we just knew we had nothing to lose and that we could put our heart and soul into it,” said senior Sam Wilson, one of the Titans’ captains. “We really wanted to make a statement for the Western Slope.”
Wilson’s co-captain, senior Brianna Rhodes, said seeding and numbers weren’t at the forefront of her mind entering the playoffs.
“I know, personally, I didn’t really pay attention to seeding and the numbers,” she said. “The whole week of practice before Eaton, we approached it with the mindset of, ‘OK, this is a team that has all these other strengths, but this is how we’re going to play so we can win.’ I think that really helped.”
Coal Ridge’s run is not only about embracing an underdog mentality. It also has something to do with a team loaded with potential finally finding its way. The Titans, who lost five seniors from last year’s team, were lean on varsity experience entering the season.
“At the beginning of the season, we were trying to find out who we were,” senior post Tori Verdieck, who contributed 24 points in the win over Eaton. “Now we’re finding out who we are, that we’re Coal Ridge and we play old-school ball. We have a defensive mindset every night.”
Defense and a balanced attack are behind that old-school attack. The Titans don’t have a true superstar, often getting contributions from all corners of the roster.
“Everyone takes turns stepping up,” Wilson said. “It’s cool. We don’t have a superstar. Really everyone contributes and that really helps.”
That trend can be attributed, at least partially, to chemistry.
“I think what’s clicked throughout the whole year is that we’re a team,” Rhodes said. “We’re a family. We’ve had that to work with and that’s really helped.”
It’s helped them to heights few expected. How much higher the Titans go remains to be seen.
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