Players on the Lady Cardinals’ team featured front row, l-r, #24 Kynlee Phillips, senior; and #13 Kennedy Vallejos, senior. Back row, l-r, Zoe Martinez, freshman; Ashlynn Steinbrunn, freshman; #2 McKayla Kiniston, junior; #3 Makayla Phillips, sophomore; #4 Abrielle Gomez, freshman; #21 Chole Weber, sophomore; #14 Jaquelin Canales, freshman; #12 Kierra Coen, sophomore; #5 Windsor Leighty, junior; and #1 Kristen Marks, freshman. Coaches for the team included Brianne Howe, head coach, and assistant coaches Jalynn Oquist, Josie Mallard Aragon, and Dick Peecher.
The disappointment was obvious on their young, very young, faces as the McClave Lady Cardinals who had entered the state tournament with a perfect 23-0 record and were seeded #1 in the tournament bracket watched the clock tick down signaling the end of the 1A Girls State Basketball championship game indicating Briggsdale was the 2023 state champions, for the first time in that school’s long history, winning 53-37.
For McClave the result capped an outstanding season with a 25-1 record and a 1A state runner-up trophy. But that was not the result that group of young players wanted.
The Cardinals brought a lot of hope and a reputation as a feisty, in-your-face team to the 2023 Class 1A Colorado Girls State Championship Tournament held on March 9-11 at the UNC Bank of Colorado Arena in Greeley and the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland and were seeded in the top position with the championship theirs for the taking.
They would first meet up with their hometown nemesis the Granada Lady Bobcats in the quarterfinals on Thursday and came away with an expected 52-27 win. That victory advanced the young Cardinals, who depend on mostly freshmen and sophomores, to the state semifinals round with a date with the much bigger and aggressive Dove Creek Lady Bulldogs (23-3). The Cards had to mount a comeback victory to win that semifinals game, 43-39.
That win pitted them against last year’s state runner-up team, Briggsdale, who had been to the Final Dance innumerable times, but had never won it all. They were on a mission. McClave had their hearts set on the same goal. But the Briggsdale group had a major weapon in junior Jenna Krise who elevated her team over McClave, 53-37.
After a slow start, the Lady Cardinals got rolling against Granada as their defense eventually wore down the feisty Bobcats.
The first quarter was just 4-3 after one quarter, but the Cards then picked up their defense in the second quarter and for the rest of the game outscored the Bobcats from there on out.
McClave would defeat Granada for a third time this season enroute to 52-27 victory.
The Cardinals were led by a terrific performance by McKayla Kiniston. The junior turned in a rare triple-double performance with 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 steals.
McClave standout freshman Abrielle Gomez added 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 steals for the Lady Cards. Senior Kennedy Vallejos added 8 points and Ashlynn Steinbrunn had 5 points.
For the Bobcats it was junior Marissa Valenzuela with 11 points and 5 rebounds. ToriLin Riddle and Trinidie Quintana each chipped in 4 points.
The McClave crew found themselves in unchartered territory in the state semifinals game as the much bigger and stronger Dove Creek team won both early quarters leading the Cards by 11 points, 27-16, at the intermission.
But McClave turned up the defense in the third quarter outscoring Dove Creek 11-3 behind a ferocious defensive effort. The Cardinals would extend the defense at the top pinning the Dove Creek ball handlers up against the halfcourt line time and again. They failed to adjust and McClave took advantage of a number of steals and layups to get back into the contest.
Also, give Kiniston a round of applause as the junior ignited her teammates in the third quarter taking three charges against Dove Creek in less than two minutes, forcing the Bulldogs into making costly mistakes.
Gomez took over the game in the second half starting the run by going 4-for-4 from the free throw line and then running in a layup that brought the Cards to within three points, 29-26, with 2:13 left in the third.
Going into the fourth quarter the Cardinals still trailed but a Gomez triple with 7:05 left in the game got them within a single bucket, 32-30.
Three minutes later, Kiniston’s steal and layup tied the game 32-32.
Throughout the fourth quarter the score was tied four times. With the score tied at 38-38 with 18 seconds remaining in regulation, Gomez sliced through the Bulldog defense for a layup getting the lead.
A Dove Creek free throw got them to within a point, 40-39 with 7.4 seconds remaining. But Kiniston would get fouled with 4 seconds left and the junior made both freebies forcing Dove Creek to hit a three to tie the game. When Gomez made a steal on the inbounds and was fouled the game went to the Cardinals.
Both Gomez and Kiniston had double-double performances with Gomez hitting for 16 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. Kiniston added 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Ashlynn Steinbrunn only hit one triple but was big on the boards with 10 rebounds.
On Saturday night at the Budweiser Events Center the Briggsdale crew came to play as they jumped out to a 14-5 lead after the first quarter led by junior Jenna Krise who was phenomenal in the contest.
In addition, Kiniston, who was trying to stop Krise ended up with her third foul with just .40 seconds left in the first quarter meaning McClave would be without one of their key rebounders and offensive threats. Kiniston sat for the entire second quarter.
In the second quarter it was still Krise who controlled the pace of the game. McClave struggled to get any offense going against the long and athletic Briggsdale defense which forced them further and further out on the perimeter. Chloe Weber hit a couple of triples and Steinbrunn added another, but that was all they could muster before halftime.
At the half the Cards found themselves trailing 33-18 in a big deficit for the second night in a row.
The Briggsdale team proved to be too much for McClave to handle as Krise dished to her teammates and scored when she got the opportunity. McClave battled as Kiniston then Gomez each hit a runner in the lane in the third quarter and Weber added a long 2-pointer.
Krise ended up with 26 points and 9 rebounds in the game that brought home the Gold Ball to Briggsdale after all these years of being at the Dance but not winning it all.
For the youngsters from McClave they were led by freshman Abrielle Gomez with another double-double performance with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Weber had 9 points.
Steinbrunn gave it everything she had left in the tank scoring 6 points, pulling down 9 rebounds, dishing out 3 assists and getting 3 steals.
Kiniston, who spent the bulk of the game on the bench in foul trouble, scored 3 points and grabbed 7 rebounds.
The senior on the team, Kennedy Vallejos, added 7 points.
McClave is more than likely a team that will be back to the state tournament next year as they just lose Vallejos to graduation. The senior averaged 5.6 points per game and 2.7 steals per game as the team’s top one-on-one open court defensive player.
The Cards will also lose Kynlee Phillips who had limited court time but who supported the team in long practices and came on the court with knowledge and leadership when she got the opportunity.