In doing so, the Bluejays punched their ticket to the Class 2A State Tournament for the first time in more than a decade and ensured that their outstanding season that has featured 17 wins will continue one more weekend.
“All of the hard work that we put in is (going through my mind),” Caden Showalter said shortly after the final buzzer sounded. “It would have been tough if we lost this one. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of confidence and a lot of teamwork (to make state).
While the game’s final result was what Mancos had worked for, the first eight minutes of the contest were anything but comfortable as Heritage Christian came out on fire and built a 20-10 lead by the end of the first quarter.
Among the keys to the early explosion was an emphasis on skipping the ball over the top of the Bluejays’ vaunted 1-3-1 zone, which allowed Heritage Christian shooters to get open looks at the basket and knock down four 3-pointers.
After receiving a spirited pep talk from head coach Elijah Knepper before the start of the second quarter, Mancos returned to the court with renewed energy and immediately began trapping their opponents along the baseline and creating turnovers.
The Bluejays also began to pound the ball inside to Hunter Hoover, who scored six of his 11 points in the first half. Caden Showalter also began to make his presence felt in the paint as the big man bowled over defenders on several occasions and scored five points in the second quarter.
“The refs actually let us play for once,” said Caden Showalter, when asked about the physicality of the game. “It was nice that we could show people how we actually play. It’s good to play a physical game.”
Although a 4-0 run by Heritage Christian to close the quarter put the Bluejays behind 32-31 entering the halftime break, it seemed that momentum had swung Mancos’ way in the matchup between sixth-seeded Bluejays and the 11th-seeded Eagles.
As the second half began, however, Heritage Christian once again seized control and outscored the Bluejays 14-7 over the course of eight minutes and built a 46-38 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Among the bright spots for Mancos during the third quarter was the play of freshman Chase Moore, who consistently attacked the basket and scored four points while coming up with several steals on the defensive end.
Moore fouled out with 5:57 remaining in the fourth quarter, however, and with Mancos trailing 46-42, head coach Elijah Knepper turned to freshman Sehnert, who had played limited minutes off the bench during the regular season.
While many young players might have buckled under the pressure of playing for a regional championship, Sehnert rose to the occasion and drained a 3-pointer on his first offensive possession and cut his team’s deficit to 47-45.
After an old-fashioned 3-point play by Showalter and two technical free throws by Christian Cova put Mancos ahead 50-47 with about four minutes left in the game, Sehnert drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing to put the Bluejays ahead, 53-47.
“Coach noticed that I’m shooting in warmups pretty well,” Sehnert said. “I decided I better start shooting in games, and it came out pretty good.”
Although Mancos appeared to be headed to a victory, a gutsy effort by Heritage Christian down the stretch cut the Bluejays lead to 53-51 with just over two minutes left after a layup by Levi Friedrich.
Four consecutive free throws by Hoover put Mancos ahead 57-51 with 1:26 left in the game, however, and after Caden Showalter converted five free throws in the final minute and Connor Showalter scored a breakaway layup just before the buzzer, the buzzer sounded with Mancos leading 64-55.
As players chest bumped and high-fived near their student section, Knepper and assistant coach Randy John exhaled and took in the scene. The coaches then watched as players cut down the nets after what was the final high school game in the Mancos Performance Center.
“We appreciate everyone,” Caden Showalter said, when asked to share his thoughts on the scores of fans that packed the Mancos Performance Center one final time. “Ever since my freshman year, we’ve had a good audience. They always come out and support. They are everything to us.”
Leading scorers for Mancos included Caden Showalter, who scored 23 points, Sehnert, who scored 14 points, and Hoover, who scored 11 points. Of significant note in the contest was the fact that Caden Showalter scored the 1,000th point of his high school career during the third quarter.
Now 17-6 overall on the season, Mancos will advance to the Class 2A State Tournament, which will begin in Loveland on Thursday. While the Bluejays recognize that the state tournament will be tough, Caden Showalter believes that his team is up to the challenge.
“At state, it’s not going to be any less physical, it’s going to be more (physical),” Showalter said. “We have to get used to that. We are a physical team, though, and I think that we can do well.”
Before turning their attention to their next opponent however, the Bluejays and their fans will take at least a few hours to enjoy their regional championship in what has been a historic season for the team.