Hayden heads to state
The Hayden High School girls basketball team left Hayden on Wednesday for the state tournament, which begins Thursday in Pueblo.
Steamboat Springs Holli Salazar gets all the attention, and maybe that makes sense.
The senior forward leads the Hayden High School girls basketball team by scoring nearly 18 points a game. She's almost always one of the best athletes on the floor - she's a standout in volleyball and a state champion in the shot put during track season.
Salazar's points helped prop the team up all season, and her team-best 17 points helped the Tigers squash Limon in the regional championship and advance to state, where no Hayden girls team has gone before.
But the story of the Tigers' historic trip to state, which starts with today's 1:15 p.m. opening-round game against Sanford in Pueblo, doesn't revolve just around Hayden's best player.
The trip to Pueblo instead seems like a class project for a group of senior girls that has been the heart of Hayden sports for several years.
"These seniors, you've been able to see it in their eyes all year," Hayden coach Eric Hamilton said after his team locked up a berth in the eight-team tournament. "This is what they've wanted all year."
Hayden will dress five seniors for today's game. As a group, they lifted the Tigers to their highest point ever.
Salazar leads the team in points and rebounding. Kylee Sweetser is among the leaders in nearly every stat category. Caitlin Mahanna came through at one of the most important moments of the season, and Elaine Cromie and Kylie Harris offered important minutes off the bench from start to finish.
Each seemingly had a role in the drive to state.
Salazar was almost ever-present, despite consistently being the focus of the opponent's defense.
When she couldn't score early, she scored late, as she did in a Jan. 30 win against North Park. Held to just seven points in the first three quarters, she exploded for eight in the fourth to stunt the upset-minded Wildcats.
Sweetser's moment came as the Tigers struggled down the stretch of a critical home game against eventual state-qualifier Meeker.
Hayden sat tied with the Cowboys late in the fourth quarter, despite building a double-digit lead in the first half.
Sweetser drained a 3-point shot with 8 seconds remaining to give the Tigers the win.
She led the team in 3-pointers throughout the season, ending the regular schedule with 18 more than anyone else.
"That," Hamilton said at the time, "was awesome."
Mahanna, meanwhile, rarely left the court. That feat included a stint through the middle of the season where she played with a broken nose.
"She's as tough as they come," Hamilton observed after a January win.
Her most important contribution came in the regional semifinals.
Hayden didn't finish its regular season schedule with the same blowout scores it started it with, but the Tigers still managed to make it through with only one loss. Things finally caught up to them at the district tournament, where league rivals Meeker and Rangely walked away with comfortable wins.
Then, as Hayden struggled in overtime against Luthern Parker in the regional semifinals, Mahanna came through. She stole a ball at midcourt in the overtime period's waning seconds, flew down the court and laid it in to give the Tigers the lead for good.
Cromie's most important contribution came in Hayden's lone league loss. Salazar, loaded up with fouls, was confined to the bench, and Cromie scored seven of her nine points for the game. She pulled the team within two points after drawing a foul on a made basket and converting the ensuing free throw.
Harris, meanwhile, scored her season-high six points in the first game of the season, a 54-23 win against Vail Christian that started the ball rolling that has yet to stop.
"At the beginning of the year, that was our goal. I knew we had the talent to go to the Great 8," Salazar said. "Are we happy to be here? Happy doesn't even begin to describe it."