After a stellar season that began with 19 wins in 22 tries, the Mancos Bluejays experienced the sudden and intense pain that sports can deliver when they lost Saturday to Ignacio High School 58-48 in the Class 2A Region 4 final.
The intensely contested matchup was the fourth between the Bluejays and their San Juan Basin League rivals this season, which they split 2-2.
Although the Bluejays entered the contest oozing with confidence after defeating Ignacio 54-50 the previous Saturday, it was the Bobcats’ big shots that seemingly sucked the air out of the Mancos community.
Bluejays’ head coach Elijah Knepper emphasized neither his players nor his team would be defined by the loss.
“We had a great year, we’re back-to-back league champs and back-to-back district champs for the first time in, forever,” Knepper said. “I’m so proud of these guys. ... It’s going to sting for a while, but I told them, ‘Don’t hang your head, the sun will come up tomorrow.’”
Leading scorers for Mancos included senior Caden Showalter, who capped his high school career with 19 points, and sophomore Connor Showalter, who scored 11. Senior Anthony Medina added eight, and sophomore Evan Sehnert scored seven.
In the end, though, the afternoon belonged to Ignacio junior Brady McCaw, who scored a game-high 26 points and carried his team during a decisive fourth quarter that began with the Bobcats leading 37-35 and ended with them holding a 10-point advantage.
“Brady McCaw was able to go off in the fourth quarter – credit to him,” Knepper said. “All year, we talked about playing with our hands up. During the fourth quarter, we were closing out the shooters with our hands down like we’ve never practiced before, which is unfortunate.”
Before Ignacio’s fourth-quarter run, the back-and-forth contest brought fans to their feet as both sides deftly moved the ball and produced big plays.
The first quarter, highlighted by tough Bobcats man-to-man defense and balanced Bluejays scoring, ended tied at 12 points apiece. Ignacio gained a small advantage and pulled ahead 24-23 by the end of the second quarter, which was marked by physical play on both sides.
As the third quarter got underway, Mancos briefly seized the momentum as Caden Showalter aggressively drove to the basket and scored on his team’s opening possession of the half. Sehnert followed with a transition 3-pointer from the left corner to put the Bluejays ahead 28-24.
Ignacio fought back, however, and after a long jump shot by senior Keegan Shurman, an offensive rebound and put-back by junior Bryce Finn, four free throws by McCaw and a buzzer-beating offensive rebound and put-back by sophomore Gabe Tucson, the Bobcats built a 37-35 lead heading into the final quarter.
“What do you want to play on defense, man or zone?” Ignacio head coach Chris Valdez asked his players as they huddled before the fourth quarter. After McCaw, Finn and others responded that they wanted to play man-to-man, Valdez smiled before exclaiming, “This is our time.”
Feeding off the energy of their coach and excited by their aggressive defense, Ignacio began the final period on fire and eventually built a 50-44 lead with 2:48 left after McCaw drained a 3-pointer from the wing.
After Shurman knocked down a long 3-pointer from the left corner moments later to go ahead 53-44, the game was all but over. The Bluejays battled until the end, but the victory they desired was not to be.
Doing his best to remain optimistic, Knepper noted that learning moments come in all forms. He emphasized that he expects his underclassmen to expand on the season next year.
“I think you can learn a lot more from losses than you can from wins,” Knepper said. “I had a coach my freshman year of high school – he said don’t come back next year because of how (wins) feel – come back next year because of how you feel after a loss.”
Although their loss was a disappointing end to a memorable season, Mancos players kept their heads held high.
“I love playing with my teammates; they’re not only my teammates, they’re my brothers,” Medina said. “I’m just really happy that we created a bond during the process. It’s a bond that will go beyond high school sports and into life.”
“I definitely want to thank everyone, especially coach Knepper for giving us his all,” Caden Showaler said. “It’s not just about the winning streaks, it’s about all the great memories.”
Game 1Mancos 70, Hoehne 56Playing host to the opening game of the Class 2A Region 4 Tournament on Friday, Mancos came out on fire and defeated 11-2 Hoehne High School, 70-56 in front of a loud home crowd.
While the Bluejays’ 14-point victory was a bit tighter than they might have hoped, a first half that ended with Mancos leading 42-19 set the stage for the lopsided victory.
Caden Showalter, who controlled the paint and showcased a variety of nifty post moves while scoring 18 of his game-high 21 points during the first 16 minutes.
“We knew that one of our advantages going in was that we were going to have a size advantage,” Knepper said. “Caden scored 18 points in the first half. The challenge for us moving forward is to make sure that we keep getting him the ball if he has a good first half.”
Joining Caden Showalter with double-digit scoring was brother Connor Showalter, who scored 17, and Medina and Sehnert, who each scored 10. Sophomore Edgar Hernandez scored six off the bench, and junior Christian Cova and sophomore Connor Sehnert both scored four.
Hoehne was led by junior Nicholas Yates, who scored 12 points, and junior K.J. Rael, who chipped in 10 while playing against the Bluejays’ 1-3-1 zone defense, which has given opponents difficulties all year.
“(Hoehne) took a guy off one of the corners and moved him to the top of the key to make the pass a little easier,” Knepper said. “The biggest problem that we had was that we didn’t rebound very well, and that cost us a lot of points – in the second half especially.”
The Bluejays also were affected down the stretch by a third-quarter injury to Medina, whose head was split open and bloodied, and Hernandez, who was clubbed in the nose while going to the rim.
Down two key players and playing reserves, the Bluejays were outscored 22-12 in the fourth quarter, which began with Mancos leading 62-41. As Hoehne pulled to 66-54 with 2:28 left, Knepper reinserted his starters.
“It was unfortunate that we were unable to close that game,” Knepper said. “(Hoehne) started pressing with about five minutes to go, and we were unable to handle it. We also weren’t able to make foul shots down the stretch. It was a good experience for everyone on our team, and a win is a win right now.”