The Hotchkiss Bulldogs earned a berth in this week's Western Slope Region basketball tournament at Gunnison.
In district quarterfinals Hotchkiss pulled off a 65-63 win last Wednesday to eliminate Vail Christian.
"It was a close game, but we just came out on top," said senior Gabe Rodriguez.
Junior guard Sam Rodriquez scored a game- and season-high 28 points in the win, which also came on the heels of a 72-71 win over the Saints in the final game of the regular season.
In Friday's 68-33 semifinal loss to Paonia, head coach Eric Hollembeak said the Eagles outplayed them, "Plain and simple. They're a really good team, and if you're not ready to play, they're gonna get you bad."
In Saturday's third-place game, the Bulldogs rebounded to beat Plateau Valley, 59-48 and advance to the regional tournament.
The game was more reflective of the way their season has gone, said senior Gabe Rodriguez. Hotchkiss held a 19-8 lead to end the first quarter. When the Cowboys tied the game at 36-36 in the third, Rodriguez said he wasn't worried. "I'm pretty confident in my teammates," he said. "In tough situations we can work our way through."
"A little bit scary in the third," said Hollembeak. The team knew that if it didn't start making some big shots its season would end.
Hotchkiss poured on the defense. "Jonathan Gonzalez stepped up and made some really big plays for us," said Hollembeak. The junior sank a three-pointer to give Hotchkiss a 39-36 lead. Zack Allen had two key blocks in the third and junior guard Braxton Trujillo took a defensive rebound coast to coast to put the Dogs up 41-36.
"They're definitely a tough physical team," said Allen, who had the last word in the third, scoring on a buzzer-shot from the key to give Hotchkiss the lead, 47-39.
Following the win Gabe Rodriguez said he believes the team is ready for the regional tournament.
Rodriguez and his brother, junior Sam Rodriguez, credit Coach Hollembeak for preparing them for the playoff season. "He's really good at motivating us, getting us ready," said Gabe. "We wouldn't be here without him."
Sam Rodriquez called the wins over Vail Christian "the highlight of the offensive season." Rodriquez, who averages almost 16 points per game, scored 28 points in the district win over the Saints. The team has also become very close this year. "Team breakfasts, team dinners, going to the rec center, it really helps us," said Sam.
Allen said this year's team is more balanced. Last year two players did most of the scoring, "But this year it's the whole team, it's everybody out there."
During the season the Bulldogs had lost four games by the end of January. After a two-point loss to Vail Mountain they posted an eight-game winning streak. A 14-point win over Rangely in early February was the turning point, said Allen. The next day they upset then undefeated Meeker by 12 points. "We had it in our minds that Rangely's a good team," said Allen. "We just had a pretty big confidence boost after that."
Allen said this is the best he's seen the team play in his four years.
"I think they're having fun playing," said Hollembeak. With a 16-6 record, the Bulldogs are now ranked eighth in the state.
Most of the improvement, said assistant coach Steve Allen, has been in the team's chemistry. "They really play as a team... Doesn't matter who's open, they're going to pass the ball to them."
This Friday the Bulldogs will face No. 5 Del Norte at 6:30 p.m., at Western State Colorado University. The winners will face No. 2 Ignacio at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The winner of that game will advance to the Great 8 state tournament.