Red-hot Cardinals off to soaring start in 3A
Colorado high school athletics can often be unfair to athletes and schools on the Western Slope when it comes to recognition, but through its play on the court through eight games, the Grand Valley Cardinals’ boys basketball team is making sure the entire state knows just how good it is this season.
Off to a 9-1 start in 3A, the Cardinals started off the week on a high note, earning a No. 3 ranking in the 3A boys basketball initial RPI standings, right behind powerhouses like Alamosa and Sterling. The No. 3 ranking is the highest a Garfield County athletic team has ranked in the RPI system since being put into use before the start of the 2016-17 school year. Additionally, the Cardinals sit at No. 4 in the Colorado High School Activities Association poll, as voted on by media members and coaches throughout the state.
For a small school along the banks of the Colorado River in Parachute, the Cardinals sure do play a fast-paced, entertaining style of basketball under veteran head coach Scott Parker. With a rotation that is 10 deep, the Cardinals will run teams out of the gym offensively while playing swarming, physical defense at the other end, leading to the hot start and an average margin of victory of 22.0 points per game. In fact, seven of the Cardinals’ nine wins have come by at least 19 points, with the Cardinals cracking the 80-point barrier three times.
“We take pride in that ranking,” Grand Valley Head Coach Scott Parker said. “We have to give some credit to our administration for that ranking, too, for enabling us to travel and go to some tournaments early on in the season. We’ve done that since I’ve been here, so that helps us to play teams outside of the valley, which has played a factor in that ranking.”
Aside from playing teams outside of the valley to help boost their resume, the Cardinals have a deep, talented roster loaded with players that have heavy varsity experience, dating back to the 2015-16 team that made a run into the Great 8 of the 3A CHSAA state playoffs, which featured standouts in forward Tanner Magee and guards Johnnie Parker and Gunner Rigsby. Coming off the bench for that team was the likes of current standout senior guards Kade Hurst, Brenden Hagerty, Jeff Holbrook and Justin Smith, as well as senior forward Garett Magee, not to mention junior forward Indra Griggs and junior guard Angel Garcia.
That experience playing high-level basketball as underclassmen helped prepare the seniors and some key juniors for this stage that they’re currently playing on.
“I learned a lot from John, Gunner and Tanner during that time,” Hurst said prior to a recent practice at Grand Valley High School. “It was little things like how to be a leader or how to do the right things on the floor to help win games. It’s not necessarily the experience that was gained that was key, because the experience will help us down the stretch when we get there, but the teammates that I had then and them teaching not only myself but other key guys on this team everything they knew has been such a huge benefactor to our success this season.”
It can be hard to compare the 2015-16 version to this current 2017-18 group for the Cardinals considering the players have changed, but the system is still the same offensively: run and gun, fire at will. The key difference this year compared to two seasons ago is the type of defense the Cardinals are playing, which has led to such impressive margins of victory to start the season.
“Probably what we do best now with this group is defense,” Parker said of a team that allows an average of just 50 points per game. “For these guys having to come in and face that kind of team as underclassmen two years ago every day in practice really benefited them. That’s not to take away anything from these kids right now because they’ve been together and put in the work. They’ve been playing together since at least seventh grade. This is kind of the final result of having played together for so long and working together.”
While the offensive numbers will be eye-popping to observers of a team that has four starters averaging double figures in scoring on a nightly basis, the real key to the success has no doubt been the attacking style of defense the Cardinals play, considering every player on the court will pressure their opponent on or off the ball and won’t hesitate to jump into passing lanes for steals. Outside observers could see it as too much unnecessary gambling on the defensive end, but there’s a belief with this group that the defense leads to the offense, and once the offense gets going for Grand Valley, it can be overwhelming for opponents.
“I feel like me and Jeffery [Holbrook] do a great job of coming out and setting the tone defensively and pushing the pressure,” Hagerty said. “While we do that, we have guys like Indra down low, as well as Kade and Garett holding down the paint for us. We couldn’t really ask for much more from those guys. We do a great job of just keeping the pressure on defensively as a team and utilizing our individual strengths to make the most out of every possession that we can.”
As a team, the Cardinals are averaging an astounding 15.5 steals per game, with Hurst (2.8), Hagerty (2.8) and Garcia (2.0) leading the charge per game.
“I like our style defensively,” Holbrook said. “I take pride in drawing the tough defensive assignments because I’ve been doing it all four years on varsity. A lot of people tend to overlook the importance of defense leading to offense in basketball because scoring is the main part of basketball. But we take a ton of pride in our defense because we have to stop the opponents from scoring. We know we can’t score every possession, so we know we have to play good defense every possession.”
The veteran team knows that while the start of the season and the early accolades are fun, the season is just beginning. With one more nonconference game left on the schedule Friday night against Gunnison at home, the Cardinals have one final tune-up before 3A Western Slope action starts on Saturday against the Roaring Fork Rams, who are riding an eight-game winning streak of their own.
To hear the Cardinals talk about the start they’ve had, this was expected, which can lead one to believe that the early-season respect from the state won’t go to their heads. And that seems to be the case for Grand Valley right now.
“We knew we had something special here with this group coming into the year,” Hurst said. “I think the early success we’ve had and the attention we’re getting is just giving us more confidence knowing that we are a good team and can compete with anyone.”
The big tests for Parker and the Cardinals are coming, though, especially after a tough loss to the Roaring Fork Rams on Jan. 20, 51-48. For the Cardinals to really take off and show outsiders that this isn’t a fluke start, they’ll have to get off to a good start in league play after the loss to the Rams while knowing that they still have to get past the back-to-back 3A Western Slope League champs in the Coal Ridge Titans, as well as tough league teams like the Delta Panthers and the Basalt Longhorns.