After learning six players on its 12-man roster would not be available for its state tournament matchup against Custer County on Tuesday because a COVID-19 quarantine, the Mancos High School boys basketball team could have folded its cards and called it a year.
Instead of wallowing in their misfortune, the Bluejays (13-2) made Tuesday night’s contest the stuff of legend, as the undermanned team came together and gutted its way to a 74-67 double-overtime victory against the visiting Bobcats (6-9) to advance to the Sweet 16 of the CHSAA Class 2A State Basketball Tournament.
“Honestly, I thought we weren’t going to have a game at first,” said junior Connor Showalter, who scored a career-high 38 points in the win. “Then I heard we had six players, and I have trust in our guys. I was ready, and I got here and worked with (our younger guys) on our plays a little bit. I knew we could do it.”
While the team’s victory may be remembered as one of the gutsiest in school history, the contest very nearly did not take place after half the team’s roster was exposed to a student who tested positive for COVID-19 late last week.
Although the exposed players tested negative for COVID-19 before the game, they were not available to play because of CHSAA protocols that required them to quarantine until Wednesday.
Additionally, the 10-3 Mancos girls team had to forfeit its place in the girls state tournament because the entire team was placed in quarantine.
Knowing the girls’ disappointment, the boys were happy to see their season continue.
“We played five or six kids for 40 minutes, and that took a lot of energy,” said Mancos head coach Bob Archibeque.
Among the many impressive aspects of the Mancos victory was the team’s ability to incorporate junior Josh Lindner and freshman Brian Veach into the team’s starting lineup in place of juniors Edgar Hernandez and Evan Sehnert.
Playing extended varsity minutes for the first time this season, Veach and Lindner stepped up by as they played lockdown defense, grabbed numerous rebounds and scored nine points and three points, respectively.
“At first, I was kind of in shock because I didn’t know if it was real or not,” said Veach when asked about his feelings about being inserted into the starting lineup. “Then I realized I had to play good for my team and step up. That’s what I did, and we got the win.”
As good as the Bluejays substitutes were, their team’s victory would not have been possible if not for the extraordinary performance of Showalter, who came out like a man on a mission and used his size and strength to control the paint all night.
During a dominant first half in which he scored 16 points and helped his team build a 32-21 halftime advantage, Showalter scored using a variety of post moves while benefiting from several well-designed baseline out-of-bounds plays crafted by Archibeque.
“I knew I had to score a lot, so I wasn’t going to hold back for anything,” Showalter said. “This was possibly our last game, and I just wanted to go all out. I think our team did pretty well giving it all that we had.”
After an evenly matched third quarter that ended with Mancos leading 44-43, the Bluejays began the fourth on an 11-5 run highlighted by 3-pointers from Lindner and freshman Kail Wayman, who scored 17 points.
A 3-pointer from the corner by Veach, which came after a baseline drive and kick-out by senior Christian Cova, gave Mancos a 58-51 lead with three minutes left, but Custer County refused to yield and tied the game at 60 after a 3-pointer by senior Garrett Olomon, who scored 13 points.
With time ticking away and Custer County in possession after Wayman inadvertently stepped across the baseline while inbounding the ball, Bobcats senior Wesley Curtis was fouled going to the basket with three seconds left. But he missed his free throw, and the game went to overtime.
During a first overtime period, highlighted by four clutch points from Showalter that came after Custer County took a 64-60 lead, Bobcats senior Tristin Greenhagen, who scored a team-high 21 points, missed an off-balance jump shot at the buzzer, and the game proceeded to a second overtime.
A 3-pointer by Wayman to open the second overtime period gave Mancos a 67-64 lead before a 3-pointer by Greenhagen tied the game at 67 with 2:03 left.
Two baskets in the paint and two free throws by Showalter along with a free throw by Wayman over the next two minutes iced the game. And as the buzzer sounded and several Custer players sank to the floor, Mancos players celebrated near their bench.
“It was a lot of pressure because, if we lost, it was the end of our season,” Wayman said. “We played well because (of our teammates who were on COVID quarantine). We had that on our mind, and we wanted to see them tomorrow when we went to Sedgwick County.”
“Our players wanted to bring their brothers back in the fold,” Archibeque said.
“For them to sit out and not get the chance to play, that is not how we wanted to end the season. We’re going to end the season together.”
Sedgwick 57, Mancos 52
The game, broadcast live KRTZ 98.7 FM, included all the players on the Bluejays roster. The Bluejays’ celebration of the victory over Custer County proved to be short-lived.
Sedgwick beat the No. 9 Bluejays, 57-52.