Paonia High School's boys' basketball team knew there was a good possibility of being in the state playoffs before season play began. All the preparations, dating from last summer to this year's 2A state playoffs, paid off for the Eagles. Paonia entered this year's state tournament as the No. 6-seeded team and with a 23-1 record.
Though getting to state was a primary goal for the Eagles, there was also a desire to play in a title game. Unfortunately for Paonia, that goal was interrupted by Sedgwick County on opening day of the 2A boys' state basketball championships in Pueblo. The Cougars built a big lead early and had to hold off a late rally for a 72-59 win. With the win, Sedgwick County moved on to play in the semifinal round against No. 2 Resurrection Christian, a 69-52 winner over No. 7 Rye.
Paonia was relegated to losers' bracket play after its loss to the Cougars. The Eagles and Rye met in semifinal-round action where Paonia scored a 65-59 decision to move on to play for the consolation bracket title against No. 5 Ignacio. The Eagles won the title with a 46-41 score.
Cougars 72, Paonia 59
Sedgwick County scored early, and way too often in Paonia's opinion, to take an 18-7 lead by quarter's end.
The Eagles found their rhythm in a 19-13 second-quarter flurry and trailed 31-26 at halftime.
Paonia wasn't able to match the intensity of the Cougars in a third period that saw the Eagles lose 10 points in a 19-9 surge by Sedgwick County.
The Eagles played like the team fans had watched all season in the fourth quarter. A 24-22 advantage for Paonia was just too little and too late to overcome the 11-point deficit it suffered in the first quarter. The Cougars scored 22 points in the final eight minutes to score the 72-59 victory.
Junior Dagan Rienks had a big game for the Eagles with 28 points. Colby Simpson added 16 points and senior Taylor Walters had 10.
Sedgwick County's Tyler Woodhams led all scorers in the game with 35 points.
Paonia 65, Rye 59
Friday's semifinal round of consolation-bracket play, between the Eagles and Rye's Thunderbolts, became a nailbiter by game's end.
Rye held the advantage at halftime, 22-21.
The Thunderbolts stretched their lead to 46-41 after scoring 24 points in the third quarter. Paonia stayed close with its 20-point performance to set up a furious finish in the final frame.
Paonia came through with clutch play from Simpson, who finished with 22 points to lead Eagles scorers in the game. Rienks added 14 points while Walters had nine for the winners.
Rye's Connor Hale scored 23 points and Kevin Bailey finished with 20.
Paonia 46, Ignacio 41
Play, in the title game, was an evenly-played contest after the first quarter.
Walters and Simpson had four points each in a 10-4 Eagles' opening period. This was the largest difference in scoring for the remainder of the game.
Second-quarter play featured an inside game by the Eagles with Rienks scoring nine points in the period. Paonia didn't make a big jump in point separation from the Bobcats, but it did establish a powerful inside presence for the rest of the game.
Paonia owned a 24-17 lead at halftime.
Rienks added another eight points to his totals in the third period and the Eagles had a 36-28 lead going to the last quarter of action.
Ignacio's Nicholas Herrera scored six of the Bobcats' 13 points in fourth-quarter play and finished the game with 11 points. Teammate Tony Manzanares also had 11 points for Ignacio.
Rienks finished the game with 20 points while Simpson scored 10.
Paonia coach Chase Roeber had mentioned the fact that "There is nothing easy from here on," after qualifying for state in Rifle a week prior. Roeber was correct in making that statement.
Roeber also mentioned how grateful he was to have a strong bench to rely on. That bench performed well at state and helped the Eagles bring home a fifth-place trophy in 2016.
The loss of seniors Walters, Francisco Lopez, Trevor Plymale and Cameron Van Vleet will definitely be felt as the Eagles look forward to next year's challenge. There is a strong nucleus of returning players who will undoubtedly provide a more than adequate base for yet another potential state contender.
Paonia finished with a fantastic 24-2 record.