So close to the championship |

So close to the championship

Jeff Caspersen
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Chris McLean | Pueblo ChieftainGrand Valley players watch from the bench as their team loses a close game during the finals of the 2A basketball championships Saturday at Massari Arena in Pueblo. Pictured from left: Whitney Ashcraft, Samantha Young, Megan Hart and Tiffany Tittes.

PUEBLO ” Kendall Babler’s halfcourt shot banked high off the glass, and down with it went Grand Valley’s state title dreams.

But the fact Babler and the Cardinals had a chance to win as the clock expired on their Class 2A girls basketball championship game against Wray only cemented the scrappy squad’s legacy.

Grand Valley could only make up seven points of a late eight-point deficit against the Eagles, dropping a 48-47 heartbreaker at Colorado State University-Pueblo’s Massari Arena on Saturday.

“You know, we gave it our all and went a lot farther than we ever hoped,” senior Lauren Schubert said. “I’m really happy with what we did.”

What the Cardinals ” who held the sixth seed entering the eight-team state tournament ” did is record the school’s best girls basketball performance in history. Late-season struggles left many thinking Grand Valley didn’t have the punch to make much noise in Pueblo.

That clearly wasn’t the case.

The Cardinals led off their run at a state title with a 61-50 Thursday ousting of No. 3 Holyoke and followed it up on Friday with a close 38-33 win over second-seeded Rocky Ford, which entered the game 24-0.

The stars just didn’t align for a Grand Valley title come Saturday, as a battle-tested Wray squad avoided back-to-back losses in the 2A state title game. The Eagles experienced heartbreak last year, losing the title game 65-58 in overtime to Limon.

“We know [Grand Valley’s] heartbreak,” Wray coach David Reed said after celebrating the win with his team. “We’ve been there.”

Grand Valley and Wray treated a packed house to quite the show, trading blows throughout in a game that featured 11 lead changes.

Whenever a team appeared poised to pull away, the other would fight their way back.

There was an early 11-7 lead for Wray, and then a 7-0 run by the Cardinals that put them up by four (23-19) at the half, and then a 6-0 run for the Eagles that gave them a 44-36 lead with 5 minutes and 17 seconds left in the game.

Neither team ever remained on the mat for long.

“We knew at the beginning it’d be a track meet,” Wray junior Stacy Post, who finished with a team-high 16 points, said. Foremost on Post’s mind as the game wore down and her team’s lead dwindled was avoiding a reprise of last year’s horrific loss to Limon.

“We used it to push us,” she said. “No repeats is what we kept telling ourselves.”

Grand Valley did what it could to deal Wray (20-6) a repeat title loss, scoring five unanswered points ” all by sophomore Erin Vanderpool ” to pull within one at 44-43 with 1:53 to go.

Vanderpool’s run included a dramatic 3-pointer that significantly upped the decibel level in the Cardinals’ rowdy student section and a couple of clutch free throws.

It was a coming-of-age moment for the youngster, said Grand Valley coach Mike Johnson.

“Erin’s been great for us all year,” he praised, “but this tournament she’s really grown up. She’s a sophomore and she always competes as hard as she can. She was huge for us tonight.”

Vanderpool led the Cardinals, who finished the season with a 19-5 record, with 18 points on 5-of-8 shooting. She was 3-for-5 from three-point range and 5-for-8 from the free-throw line.

Senior point guard Kendall Babler also did everything within her power to keep her team afloat. Babler, who spent her first three years of high school at Rifle High School, finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists despite missing extended time due to foul trouble.

Senior Lauren Schubert added 10 points for Grand Valley, and junior guard Brittney Garcia chipped in with five points in relief of Babler.

Despite the defeat, Johnson and the Cardinals savored an experience few will ever know.

“You know, I still feel like I felt [after beating Rocky Ford],” he said. “How many coaches get to coach in that kind of atmosphere? The kids got to go out there and see what that feels like. It was an awesome experience.”

Added senior Sherry Mlakar: “It’s better than we could have ever imagined. No one thought we’d even be here. We proved everybody wrong, but it hurt so bad to be so close.”

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