Tracy Sturgis photo Post player Ben Linnell attempts to score against an Ignacio defensive player at the Region 3 tournament in Durango. Linnell scored a game-high 25 points, including six three-point goals in the contest. Ignacio eliminated the Eagles 66-49.After placing fourth in the district tournament, Paonia knew it'd get a tough draw in first-round regional competition at Durango. Ignacio would prove to be too much. The Bobcats (19-6) tightly defended the post positions, holding Lane Clawson to two free throws, and Taylor Walters, who scored 32 points in two league playoff games, to one goal and three points for the game.
Guard Josiah Spano, who averaged almost 12 points per game during the season, was held to seven points.
"They defended really well," said Paonia coach Chase Roeber.
But there was one thing they couldn't contain: junior Ben Linnell. Linnell scored 18 of his game-high 25 points on three-point jump shots (the junior boasts a vertical of about 40 inches).
"He really caught fire," said Roeber. The game was Linnell's second-best of the year in terms of scoring.
Ignacio opened with two three-pointers and a 6-1 lead. By the end of the first period, Paonia trailed 14-4, with its only goal — a three-pointer by Jason Sturgis — being scored with 22 seconds remaining in the period.
Paonia trailed 29-16 near the end of the second when Bobcat guard Kelton Richmond drew a foul on a 3-point attempt, and sank all three of his free throws to give Ignacio a 32-16 lead at the half.
Paonia upped its game in the second half, shooting four of four from the free throw line and scoring three treys and 17 points in the third. But it was already looking at a 20-point deficit. That was just too much to overcome, said Roeber, especially against a tough defensive team like Ignacio.
Ignacio packed the gym with a very vocal crowd, said Roeber. For some of the less-experienced players the magnitude of the game was overwhelming. Once over the shock of the first period, Paonia settled down, holding Ignacio to two field goals and 13 points in the fourth. Linnell scored 10 of Paonia's 16 points in the fourth.
And as tough as they were, the Bobcats (19-6) lost by six to Lutheran (18-5) in Saturday's championship game. With Western Slope league champion Hayden losing to Yuma (21-2) Saturday in Region 5 competition, there will be no Western Slope representation at this week's 2A state tournament in Pueblo.
For Western Slope teams, qualifying for state is different than when Roeber played for Paonia in the mid-2000s. In 2010, the Colorado High School Activities Association made changes in the way teams qualify for state. Back then, the top two teams in the district would face the top two team from the San Juan league for regional competition, and the winners would advance to state. Now, the top four teams in each district advance to one of eight regional tournaments played throughout the state. Teams are often paired with top teams from the Front Range, such as Lutheran, a team with no players listed under 6 feet tall. Under the previous system, Hayden would not see Yuma until the Elite 8 tournament.
That's changed the dynamics a lot, said Roeber. "It's easier to get out of districts, but tougher to get to the state tournament, especially for Western Slope teams."
Tracy Sturgis photo Paonia freshman Taylor Walters takes a jump shot in Paonia’s Region 3 loss to Ignacio. Walters, and teammate Josiah Spano, were among the lead scorers in the 2A WSL this season.Despite some very close losses, Paonia's season was a positive one. With only two seniors, Clawson and point guard Taylor Katzer, Paonia is a young team. Roeber said he hopes the team is inspired enough to do some off-season workouts and play competitive ball this summer, which is what it will take to get back to the playoffs and have a shot at the state tournament next year.
Paonia has one sophomore and four freshmen on the roster, including Walters, a freshman who averaged almost 12 points and 7 rebounds per game. Roeber made efforts to give as many players experience on the court against Ignacio. "Everybody that saw the floor played pretty well for the most part," said Roeber. And that's a good start on next season.