Unbeaten Bears have goal in mind: ‘Take State’
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
RIFLE, Colorado – Even destiny needs a plan and a goal.
On the first day of practice this season, Rifle girls basketball coach Stephanie Heald wrote down the goals for her team on a white board.
At the top was the last goal, the ultimate goal, the one goal that only one team will achieve.
There are only eight Class 3A girls teams that still have a chance to claim that prize. The Great Eight tournament begins Thursday at Colorado State University’s Moby Arena in Fort Collins.
On Monday, Heald went over the goals again, congratulating the Lady Bears on a great season and an undefeated record – to this point.
Then she made a new list of goals. Once again, that one goal remained at the top.
No Rifle basketball team has ever won a state title before. In 1986, the Rifle girls team led by coach Jack Smith finished second.
Heald knows the Bears have to run and gun, taking advantage of their athleticism and quickness, but she’s also anticipating seeing more man-to-man defense. And that will mean patience and a calmer approach.
“We need to take care of the ball better and be more patient. We’re such a run-and-gun team that we want to get out and run all the time, so we have to be patient.” she said.
One reason the Bears must still run and gun when they can is their limited height, Heald said.
On defense, Rifle will depend on pressuring the opponent with its full-court press, like it has done all season.
For the Bears, the senior experience has served them well.
Leading score Cortney Cordova is one of five seniors on the team. She said that the seniors provide the experience but success at state will require everyone to play well.
“We just need everyone to stay positive and have everyone work as hard as possible,” she said. “Everyone knows what they have to do, and I know what I have to do, and it works.”
Senior Racheal Keithley agrees.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the seniors or the underclassmen, we all know that we have to play hard all the time,” she said.
The signature trademark for the undefeated Bears is unselfish play, teamwork, playing hard and having every player know their role.
“It’s very important [to know your role]. We all know how everyone plays and what our roles are,” said senior Tresa Berner.
The Bears’ senior point guard, Makayla “Shorty” Wilkins, says this season has provided opportunities for everyone to be a leader and make a difference.
“All of us are stepping up,” she said. “I don’t think we have just one leader. We have a lot of leaders who step up on this team.”
Cordova, who is averaging more than 20 points a game, is the main outside-shooting and dribble-drive option for the Bears, but Heald said she is much more than just an offensive threat.
“She’s our emotional leader for us,” Heald said. “She plays great defense, she’s an assist leader, she can really do it all and she’s going to do great in the future.”
In their 42-24 Sweet 16 win over Manitou Springs, the Bears came out tight and the nerves were showing.
It’s something Heald knows will happen, but she’s counting on the experience factor to settle things down.
“The higher the stakes, the higher the emotions and the tighter the players are,” she said. “It’s great that we have this many seniors and it will help the entire team and get everyone ready this week.”
The slow start on Saturday should serve as a reminder for the Bears this weekend. Keithley said it’s always about staying positive, regardless of the adversity.
“We knew we had to keep a positive attitude,” Keithley said about Saturday’s slow start. “We really weren’t playing as a team like we usually do and we weren’t moving like we usually do.”
Keithley also knows that the Great Eight is the best of the best.
“We wanted to go to state and now we really have to pick it up. Everything that we’ve done [so far] is nothing like what it’s going to be over there,” she said after Saturday’s win.
For Cordova, the same formula that has brought them this far is what will give them a shot at winning a state title.
“Work hard every day in practice, and work hard and play for each other as a team,” she said.
Rifle (24-0) enters the extremely talented Great Eight field as the No. 2 seed. But it will take a special effort for the Bears to claim the title.
First up for Rifle will be seventh-seeded Eaton (21-3) at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday.
The tournament favorite is Holy Family (23-1), a team that has won three straight 3A championships and have compiled a 100-5 mark over the last four years.
As the No. 1 seed, Holy Family is on the opposite side of the bracket from the Bears. The only loss for the Broomfield team was to Class 4A Longmont, which is in its classification’s semifinals. One of Holy Family’s closest games of the year was a six-point victory over Eaton.
The only other undefeated team in the Great Eight is Pagosa Springs (23-0), a school in the southwest part of the state. Rifle and Pagosa Springs could meet in the semifinals if they both win on Thursday.
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