Girls basketball: Young Bears prepped for state-tourney appearance |

Girls basketball: Young Bears prepped for state-tourney appearance

Jon Mitchell
Citizen Telegram Sports Editor
Rifle High School's girls basketball team celebrates on Feb. 20 following its 44-30 overtime victory against Glenwood Springs on the first day of the Class 4A Western Slope District Tournament. The Bears earnd a berth in the 4A state tournament with the victory and will play Mullen in the first round on Friday at Palisade High School.
Darcy Copeland / DC Photo |

Kristy Wallner knows all too well how much her Rifle High School girls basketball team has grown over the course of this season.

“We really have come a long way. In every way,” the second-year Rifle coach said.

That growth came into fruition this past week when the Bears (13-10 overall), sixth-place finishers in the Class 4A Western Slope League, rallied to knock off third-seeded and rival Glenwood Springs 44-30 in overtime during the first game of the Class 4A Western Slope District Tournament and earn one of the tournament’s four automatic berths in the 4A state tournament. Rifle, which would have won in regulation if not for a last-second layin by Hailey Armstrong at the end of the fourth quarter, scored 14 unanswered points in the extra frame to seal the win.

Granted, Rifle did wind up losing in the tournament semifinals to Palisade, 36-25, and in the third-place game to Montrose by an almost-identical score, 36-26. Still, the team with a wet-behind-the-ears roster still managed to make the 32-team state tournament bracket.

The Bears will try to regain some of the momentum from that Glenwood game when it plays in the regional round of the 4A state tournament against Mullen (14-9) at Palisade High School, with the winner playing either Green Mountain (14-9) or WSL-champion Palisade (19-2) for a trip to the Elite 8 on Saturday. Each of those Tracy Hill Regional games will be played at Palisade High School.

“We got to talking about this the other day. We have two girls on our team who, at this time last year, were playing for the PEG League championship,” said Wallner, referring to the middle-school league that involves Garfield County schools. “Now they’re in the state field of 32. That’s a big difference.”

Rifle has been able to get this far despite having just one senior — 5-foot-8 forward Whitney Vance — on its roster. They’ve also been able to do it without two of their best post players for the majority of the season in Carly Rice and Emily Neuroth, both of whom were sidelined for the season because of a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament early in the year.

But that didn’t keep the Bears from staying in the thick of things over the course of the season, and it’s come in part thanks to Rifle’s young lineup.

Those two players who were in the PEG League championship a year ago — 5-foot-9 point guard Elly Walters and 5-8 freshman guard Jessie Pressler — have been a mainstay in the Bears’ startling lineup. Another key component has been sophomore Samantha Hinkle, a 6-1 sophomore who transferred from Grand Valley in Parachute and wasn’t eligible for half of the season because of CHSAA’s transfer rule, which prohibits varsity competition for half the season for student-athletes who switch schools.

Those factors, along with the Bears’ ability to show patience on the offensive end down the stretch of the season, have helped Rifle reach the state field of 32. And even though Wallner is excited about the prospects of getting almost her entire roster back next season, she’s excited about the prospect of what her girls could do at the state tournament on Friday.

“Mullen is going to be big and well-coached. They’ll be a tough opponent,” Wallner said. “For us, we just have to do what we do and see what happens. And sometimes, that can be a beautiful thing.”

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