Two girls basketball programs, separated on the court over the years by a lot more than the two miles that separate them on the map, collided Jan. 13 in the Denver suburbs. One was Highlands Ranch, a …
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Two girls basketball programs, separated on the court over the years by a lot more than the two miles that separate them on the map, collided Jan. 13 in the Denver suburbs.
One was Highlands Ranch, a perennial Colorado girls basketball power that hasn’t endured a losing season in recent memory and features a legendary coach who just recorded her 700th win with the Falcons a few weeks ago.
The other was Rock Canyon, a program that hasn’t tasted a winning season since 2013 and is breaking in a young, first-year coach.
No contest, right?
Well, not exactly. Although Highlands Ranch won 53-47 at home in what was both teams’ 6A/5A Continental League opener, the Jaguars displayed a fight and a grit and an offensive and defensive savvy not seen out of the program in years past.
Rock Canyon’s players have always possessed talent and a desire to win, coach Eric Bartoszek said. The difference this year? Those qualities are finally surfacing for everyone to see and appreciate — like David being freed from a block of marble by Michelangelo.
“It’s our job as coaches to bring the best out of our girls. It’s all about them. They’re the ones who are putting in the work and the effort,” Bartoszek said of his Jaguars, who last beat Highlands Ranch in 2013. “They’re bought in. And when you buy in and give it your all, good things happen.”
On the other side of the scorer’s table, longtime Falcons general Caryn Jarocki, who has steered Highlands Ranch to seven state titles, two state runner-up finishes, 18 Final Four appearances and 14 league championships in her storied career, also noticed a different Rock Canyon team on Jan. 13.
“I think they played more intensely than they have in the past, for sure,” said Jarocki, now in her 26th season with the Falcons. “I think they’re better shooters than they’ve been in the past. They gave us a fight.”
That fight was on display early as Rock Canyon (10-4, 0-1) pressured Highlands Ranch (9-3, 1-0) into three first-quarter turnovers and held the Falcons to just one field goal through the game’s first 8 minutes to take a 10-5 lead.
A teardrop bucket from Brooke Harding and an Emily Courchaine free throw midway through the second quarter gave Rock Canyon what proved to be its last lead of the night, though, at 17-15.
Maddie Groth’s driving layup evened the score and a pair of Ezra Simonich free throws 49 seconds later pushed the Falcons ahead 19-17 — a lead they never relinquished.
Highlands Ranch closed the half on a 7-1 run — courtesy of Groth’s 2-pointer, three Simonich free throws and Tori Baker’s pull-up jumper — to take a 22-18 lead into the locker room.
“We were only outrebounding them by one at halftime,” said freshman Isabella Shumpert, who scored a game-high 16 points. “When we came out in the second half, we had the mentality to really crash the boards and get our momentum going.”
Highlands Ranch did just that, ultimately winning the rebound game — always a point of emphasis for Jarocki — by seven.
The Falcons also used the break to switch up their defensive approach, shifting from a zone look to a trap defense. Jarocki’s plan appeared to work, too, as the Falcons held Rock Canyon to just nine third-quarter points, extending their lead to 37-27 in the process.
The Jaguars clawed to within five points on two occasions midway through the fourth quarter, but Highlands Ranch had an answer — either from the free-throw line or from the floor — every time the Jaguars started to inch closer.
“The way we played tonight, against one of the best teams in the state, in the history of the state,” Bartoszek said, “if we can play that way the rest of the season, good things are going to happen.”
Nella Castaneda scored a team-high 15 points for the Jaguars. Harding finished with 12 points while Courchaine and Sienna Pillsbury each chipped in six.
For Highlands Ranch, Simonich scored 14 points, Baker ended the night with 13, Groth had six and Kniyah Dumas added four.
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