If you go
What: Class 2A state basketball tournament, Hayden High School girls basketball, 18-5, vs. Evangelical Christian Academy, 22-2
When: 5:30 p.m. today
Where: Colorado State University-Pueblo’s Massari Arena in Pueblo
Hayden The Hayden High School girls basketball team gathered in front of the carefully decorated bus that was to whisk it to Pueblo on Wednesday and posed as a gaggle of excited fans and teary-eyed parents snapped photos, offered wishes of good luck and bade them goodbye.
“Let’s show ’em our muscles!” Tigers’ coach Eric Hamilton shouted, and Hayden’s state-tournament-bound dozen clenched their teeth, popped their biceps and laughed before piling aboard.
Hayden is going to need all the muscle it can get to go along with speed, poise and skill if the team is to realize its goals this weekend.
The Tigers open play at 5:30 p.m. today in the Class 2A state tournament in Pueblo against Colorado Springs-based Evangelical Christian Academy.
“This is the best time of the year,” Hayden junior Erin Koehler said. “We live for this week.”
The trip is Hayden’s second to the Great Eight in the past three years and the second in program history.
A few current Tigers suited up on that team in 2009, which went on to a third-place finish. Senior guard Delanie VeDepo even contributed big points, helping lock up a first-round win against Sanford and a consolation-game victory against Meeker.
That was an exciting weekend, the veterans admitted, but it doesn’t feel anything like this.
“We felt like we were a part of it then,” senior Kyra Rolando said, “but now we’re the reason we’re going. It feels different.”
“We earned it more,” VeDepo added. “It definitely means more when you’re older.”
Hayden is guaranteed two games in the tournament, which will crown its champion Saturday. A win today can ensure three games, and would set the Tigers within one win of the final.
Getting that first win takes more than scribbling in a bracket, however. Hayden, the fifth seed at 18-5, expects to see in Evangelical Christian as complete and talented a squad as it has encountered this year.
The Eagles, 22-2, are the fourth seed in the tournament despite having the best record in the field. They’re making their first trip to state but have been one of the best teams in the area in recent years, racking up a 61-10 record through the past three seasons.
Led by senior Ellen Brandenstein’s 12 points per game, the team has proven too fast for many of its opponents.
“We’re small and quick, and we run the floor really well this year,” Evangelical Christian coach Bruce Beers said. “Everyone on our team can hit 3s, so we try to spread the floor. That opens up the middle to help with rebounds.”
Hayden coach Eric Hamilton said the Eagles most reminded him of Paonia, which could be bad news for the Tigers. Paonia accounted for both of Hayden’s Class 2A losses this year.
If the Evangelical Christian Eagles turn out to be a Colorado Springs version of the Paonia Eagles, Hayden’s ball handlers will have to be at their very best.
Hayden needed strong second-half efforts to make up for weak first halves in both the team’s regional tournament wins. That won’t be an option in Pueblo.
“When you get to this point, you can’t have a bad half,” Hamilton said.
“We really played great in the second half of the regional championship game. We’ll go off that; hopefully, we can come out and keep it rolling.”
Girls Class 2A state basketball tournament teams
■ No. 1 Sedgwick County, 19-3
The tournament’s top seed is back after finishing sixth at state a year ago. A district finals loss snapped a 12-game winning streak, but the team bounced back to make the field.
■ No. 2 Akron, 19-4
Akron split games this season with No. 1-seed Sedgwick County did beat the Cougars in the district final. The trip is the team’s third straight to state and comes after a runner-up finish a year ago.
■ No. 3 Rye, 21-3
Rye is 0-8 in its trips to the state tournament. This year’s team lost three of its first seven but has reeled off 14 consecutive wins since.
■ No. 4 Evangelical Christian, 22-2
■ No. 5 Hayden, 18-5
■ No. 6 Lutheran Parker, 20-3
Lutheran Parker lost late in the season, 52-46, to Evangelical Christian, then again in the district tournament. The squad bounced back at regionals, however, earning its first trip to state.
■ No. 7 Sanford, 19-4
Sanford is making its third straight trip to state. It went 0-2 last year, and lost to Hayden in the first round two years ago. The team closed the season strong, racking up double-digit wins all the way through districts and regionals.
■ No. 8 Holyoke, 9-14
Holyoke is the tournament’s Cinderella, entering with what is easily the field’s worst record. State basketball is just the way things are in Holyoke, however, as the squad qualified this year for the seventh time in eight seasons.
— To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or e-mail jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com