The hopes of a successful basketball season began last year for Paonia High School's girls' basketball program. After winning the 2A consolation title a year ago, Paonia looked forward to a return trip, and a shot at the state title in 2016.
Some of those hopes and dreams were fulfilled this past basketball season for the Eagles. After earning one of the state's best records, Paonia earned another trip to state and a shot at a title.
The Eagles swept through district and regional competitions on their way to Pueblo last weekend. A quarterfinal matchup with No. 7 Sanford ended with a 52-25 win. In semifinal round action, the Eagles flew past No. 3 Wray, 53-37, thus earning a championship berth in the finals against No. 1 Yuma, a 55-50 winner over No. 4 Cedaredge.
In the title game, the Indians found ways to offset Paonia's strengths to earn a 55-46 decision for the 2016 2A girls' state basketball championship.
Paonia 52, Sanford 25
Not much doubt remained as to what team had control in Massari Arena's 2A girls' first-round game between No. 2 Paonia and No. 7 Sanford.
The Eagles ran behind the hot starts from senior Taylor Carsten and junior Sophia Anderson. Carsten opened with a pair of 3-pointers and a free throw while Anderson nailed a pair of 2-pointers and was two-for-two at the charity stripe. The pair combined for 13 of the 21 points scored in the opening quarter for the Eagles. Paonia's defense did its job as well, allowing just eight points by the Indians' offense.
Senior Ashley Van Vleet picked up some slack in the second quarter with a seven-point burst to lead Paonia on a 10-7 run. The 31-15 halftime lead would prove to be more than enough to win the game.
Paonia's offense slowed its scoring punch in the third quarter but still had more than enough, with help from its defense, in an 11-5 difference.
Defense remained a key factor in the fourth quarter with Eagle defenders limiting Sanford to just five points. Paonia's offense dropped in another 10 points, including a four-for-five showing at the free-throw line.
Carsten and Ashley Van Vleet paced Paonia's offense with 10 points each. Other top scorers for the Eagles included Anderson with nine, Emily Pieper with eight and McKenna Hartigan with seven.
Paonia 54, Wray 37
Another big offensive start allowed Paonia an opportunity to outlast the state's No. 3-ranked team for its second win at this year's 2A state playoffs.
Ashley Van Vleet scorched the nylon for 11 first-quarter points and led the Eagles on a 19-8 run with Paonia never looking back.
Paonia added two more points to its lead after two quarters of play and led 30-17 at halftime.
Wray had its best offensive quarter of the game in a 13-10 run in the third period. Wray needed a bunch after trailing 40-30 heading into the final stanza.
In an effort to keep the score close, Wray was forced to foul in hopes of limiting Paonia to fewer points from the line. That strategy failed, as Paonia went to the foul line 13 times and converted eight shots into points in a 14-7 run, sealing a 17-point victory. Sophia Anderson was six of nine at the line in that time span.
Ashley Van Vleet was the game's leading scorer with 17 points and Anderson finished with 14.
Hannah Lenz's 14 counters paced Wray's offensive efforts.
Yuma 55, Paonia 46
From the start, something seemed to be missing from Paonia's game. Shots that usually fell were not falling. Offensive penetration was limited by Yuma's variety of defenses all game long. A usually fierce team on defense was unable to stop an Indian team that had more speed than any one team should have.
The one constant throughout the game was a competitiveness that did not go away.
Through all adverse conditions, including those not related to the physical play of either team, Paonia's Eagles battled on, neither coach nor team giving in to all the distractions.
The Indians were able to use their quickness while eluding traps in Paonia's presses and then use the same quickness to get to the rim for shots.
Ashley Van Vleet remained a force on Paonia's offensive side and scored five points in the second quarter, keeping the Eagles close in an 11-7 Yuma run.
After halftime, trailing 24-17, Paonia found the same predicament it had encountered in the first half of play. A stubborn Yuma defense limited the Eagles to nine points, five coming at the hands of Ashley Van Vleet. The Indians added just one point to their totals over the same time span, also speaking to the toughness of Paonia's defense.
A fourth-quarter explosion by both teams produced 41 points combined. Yuma had 21 points and Paonia 20 in the last-quarter slugfest.
Yuma senior Logan Hixon single-handedly earned stardom for the Indians by scoring 15 points in the final eight minutes of play. The diminutive playmaker hit seven of 10 free throws and nailed four goals in a game-saving effort. In all, the Indians shot 20 free throws and made 13 of them in the fourth period.
Paonia was five of seven at the line in the same time span. The Eagles lost four players via the foul route with 25 whistles aimed Paonia's way. There were 19 whistles against the Indians producing 26 free throws and 19 made shots.
Ashley Van Vleet was Paonia's leading scorer with 20 points. Hixon had 27 for Yuma.
Yuma ended its season with a sparkling 26-1 record.
The Eagles, 24-3, were highly successful in 2015-16 and are certain to be on the list of highly potential returners for next season. Seniors Marisa Edmondson, Taylor Carsten, Ashley Van Vleet and Chey Christian end their careers at Paonia High School.
Coach Scott Rienks believed in his team all season long and undoubtedly has few regrets for a highly successful season.
The seventh annual Eckert Crane Days, the annual viewing of the sandhill cranes migrating north from New Mexico through Colorado's West Slope, will be March 16-18. Representatives from the Black Canyon Chapter of the Audubon Society (BCAS) will be at the viewing site east of Eckert at Fruitgrowers Reservoir, 9 to 11 a.m. each day, to answer questions and provide binoculars and spotting scopes.