Pirates finish season with stunning victory

Before the regional tournament in Gunnison, the Cotopaxi High School girls basketball team adopted the motto: “Believe.”

“The girls really took that to heart — believing in themselves, their abilities and their teammates,” Pirates coach Troy Thornton said. “That belief led to confidence, which led to success.”

That change in mindset helped the Pirates earn a state-qualifying victory over Dove Creek and arguably the greatest win in school history at the Class 1A State Tournament, a 45-42 triumph over No. 2 seed Briggsdale last Thursday night in Greeley.

Cotopaxi, the No. 7 seed, never trailed in the contest at the University of Northern Colorado, cementing itself as one of the top four teams in the state for 2019-20.

“We talked all week about how we earned the right to be there and that no bad teams make it that far,” Thornton said.

The Pirates, 20-4, jumped on the high-powered Falcons with a 12-2 run to start the game. Briggsdale, which averages 62 points a contest, tied things up at 18 with less than one minute left in the first half, but two free throws by senior Jamie Sanchez gave Cotopaxi a 20-18 advantage at intermission.

Junior Koylynn Gulliford provided a scoring boost with eight of her game-high 16 points coming in the first quarter. Senior Claire Carlson, with her defensive pressure, also gave the team a spark with a couple of early layups.

Junior Shealee Coleman got hot in the third quarter with six points in the period, including a three-pointer to put Cotopaxi up 34-26 with 1:20 to go.

Cotopaxi struggled in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter with turnovers, as Briggsdale closed the deficit to 36-35. Carlson helped the team weather the storm by knocking down four free throws. Sanchez also came through with two layups to make it 44-38 with 1:17 left. Senior Sage Laymon provided the Pirates a little cushion by getting a rebound off a missed free throw. She was fouled and made one of two shots.

Up 45-42 with 5 seconds left, Briggsdale couldn’t make the shot to tie the game.

It was the first state-playoff victory for the Pirates since 1984 when Cotopaxi downed Peetz. It was also the first state playoff game for the Pirates (boys or girls) since 1991.

This one, Thornton said, was definitely a team victory.

“Every girl stepped up,” Thornton said. “I’m so proud of each and every one of them. Koylynn was huge on both ends of the court. She did not back down and her 20 rebounds were huge. Shealee managed the game well and hit some big shots down the stretch. Claire’s defense really frustrated Briggsdale and led to some huge layups — plus her four free throws in the fourth quarter helped seal the game.

“Jamie stepped up her defense and stopped some big drives. Sage got some big rebounds and was solid defensively. Alex [Cole] came off the bench for some major minutes and was a defensive force. Annalise [Walker] also gave us a spark of energy off the bench and helped with her ball-handling.”

Carlson and Coleman each contributed 10 points, while Sanchez had 6 and Laymon chipped in 3.

The Pirates defense was outstanding, holding the Falcons’ top three scorers to a combined 29 points. The trio came in averaging 46 points per game. Briggsdale made just 16 of 65 field goal attempts, including one of 17 three-pointers.

Never trailing in the game and being up 12-2 at the end of the first quarter were defining moments for Thornton, he said, as were “seeing the frustration and fatigue on their stud players’ faces when they came out after halftime.”  

 After the game, the Pirates celebrated in the locker room and then went to McDonald’s for a bite to eat.

“We would have done more had we known the rug was going to get pulled out from under us that night,” Thornton said.

Just a short time after their statement victory, the Pirates and the rest of the teams learned that the state tournament would be canceled because of the Coronavirus situation.

Cotopaxi was scheduled to face South Baca in the semifinals on Friday evening, with a chance to play for a state title on Saturday.

Despite the unfortunate news, Thornton said the win by Cotopaxi was “huge.”

“Not only for the program but for the school and community,” he said. “Twenty-nine years is a long time and to go up and beat the No. 2 seed when not many people gave us a chance, it’s awesome. It puts us on the map now in girls basketball.”