The boys basketball team from Paonia High School has some unfinished business to take care of.
While it's outrageous to say that a team that went 25-2 last year had a bad season, the Eagles were disappointed that one of those losses came in the first round of the 2A state tournament.
Paonia fell to Sedgwick County 72-59 in the first round at state, then came back to win the consolation bracket with victories over Ignacio (46-41) and Rye (65-59).
The Eagles were pleased with the fourth place finish at state, but some of this year's team still remembers the feeling of coming up just short.
"I think for the most part it's a new year, new slate," Paonia coach Chase Roeber said at practice last week. "But I know there's some of our guys that with that first loss at state and ending up in the consolation bracket, there's still a little bit of a taste left over from that, making us a little hungry again."
Back-to-back defending 2A state champion Sanford got the No. 1 ranking in the first CHSAA online poll, but the Eagles are right behind them at No. 2.
Paonia lost a lot of height with the graduation of Taylor Walters, Francisco Lopez and Cameron Van Vleet.
"We lost a little bit of size but we make up for some of that with smarts and athleticism," Roeber said. "We're still going to be a solid team and I don't think size will hurt us any."
The Eagles will rely on six seniors that hope to cap their outstanding careers with another trip to the state tournament. Their veteran leadership will be the key to the season.
"Absolutely, and more than just on the floor," Roeber said. "Their leadership off the court and then in practice and everywhere else, their leadership is just really important all around."
Dagan Rienks and Colby Simpson will be the floor leaders on the team. Rienks is a dominant 6-6 center and Simpson is a speedy guard who can shoot the ball and play the point.
Alex Lozano, Colton Godwin, Triston Mautz and Joe Martinez are the other seniors who the Eagles will rely on.
Caden Meilner, Slater Podgorny, Sean Devlin, Marcos Edmondson and Enoch Kropp are the five juniors on the squad, and sophomores Elan Maulhardt and David Lozano round out the Paonia roster.
"Sean Devlin looks pretty good. Enoch Kropp is sick, but when he comes back, I expect big things out of him," Roeber said. "Elan Maulhardt is just a sophomore, but I expect him to step in and fill some of that size void we're missing. Those are just a few of the younger guys I expect to step up and play well."
All the pieces are starting to fit together nicely.
"Practice looks great right now. Our intensity is awesome," Roeber said. "We're doing good things in practice every day. Our leaders are stepping up, really helping drive everybody else toward the goals we're shooting for at the end of the year."
The Eagles are working on systems that can emphasize their strengths.
"I don't think our style of play is going to change a lot," Roeber said. "We still have enough size that we can run the kind of offenses where we don't have to rely necessarily just on a big man on the block, old school basketball. We're getting guys moving, setting screens, getting open that way."
Early in the season, the Eagles coach wants his squad to work on protecting the basketball.
"I want to focus on not turning the ball over. That was something we struggled with at the beginning of last year," Roeber said. "By the end of the year we had it cleaned up, but I want to start this year focused on being efficient and having possessions matter. And then by the end of the year hopefully every possession matters."
It's hard to know how accurate the state rankings are given that Resurrection Christian and Rye both moved up to 3A, and Sanford and Sedgwick County both lost a lot of players to graduation. But the No. 2 ranking for Paonia might be a good omen.
"It's a good sign of respect but it also puts a big target on our backs right now," Roeber said. "Which we knew we were going to have one anyways. That just puts a little bigger one."
Eagles fly to 2-0
Paonia got its first two wins of the year last weekend at a tournament at Ridgway.
The Eagles beat host Ridgway 79-8 on Saturday and handled Norwood 74-57 on Friday.
Paonia hosted Olathe last night, Dec. 6, in its first home game of the season and will travel to play Coal Ridge's Titans on Friday.