2017 Year in Review, Part I: Aurora claims His (Eaglecrest) and Hers (Grandview) state basketball titles


ABOVE: Senior Colbey Ross, center, and his Eaglecrest boys basketball teammates celebrate with the 2016-17 Class 5A state championship trophy they won with a 53-47 win over George Washington on March 11, 2017, at the Denver Coliseum. It was the program’s second all-time 5A state basketball championship. BELOW: Grandview junior Jaiden Galloway hugs senior Kennede Brown after the Wolves’ 61-32 win over Lakewood in the Class 5A girls basketball state championship game on March 11, 2017, at the Denver Coliseum. The win netted the Wolves the first state basketball title in school history. (Photos by Philip Poston/Aurora Sentinel)

AURORA | Another fantastic year of prep sports took place around Aurora in 2017, which was highlighted by a sweep of the Class 5A boys and girls state basketball championships.

Here are some of the finest moments from the first half of a year that saw a combined 18 state championships plus 28 runner-up finishes for Aurora prep teams and individuals:

Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or sports@aurorasentinel.com. Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel

Outgoing Eaglecrest boys basketball coach John Olander pumps his fist in the air in front of the Raptors’ crowd after his team’s 53-47 victory over George Washington in the Class 5A state championship game on March 11, 2017, at the Denver Coliseum. Olander announced his attention to step down as head coach prior to the season and went out with his second state crown. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

EAGLECREST BOYS BASKETBALL TEAM SENDS COACH JOHN OLANDER OUT WITH HIS SECOND CLASS 5A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP RING

When they arrived four years earlier, the seniors on the Eaglecrest boys basketball team came into a program that had just won a Class 5A state championship.

That was the 2012-13 season, when coach John Olander led the Raptors to the school’s first state title with a victory over Denver East. The incoming group inherited lofty expectations and with it belief that winning a state championship might be possible someday.

That day turned out to be March 11, when Eaglecrest’s six seniors — Colbey Ross, Nate Bokol, Ikenna Ozor, Austin Forsberg, Joshua Walton and Jamey Rich — walked off in the Denver Coliseum floor in style with a gritty 53-47 victory over George Washington in the 5A state championship game.

“We won it when I was in eighth grade and I remember coming in and thinking ‘Will I ever get to that point?’” Ozor said. “This is really the fruition of all of our labor, working hard and winning a state championship. It’s just amazing.”

At the time, that senior group didn’t know their last game would also be the last for Olander, who announced his intention to step down earlier in the season after a lengthy run on the bench that included four trips to the Final Four in the last five seasons and two titles.

The seniors were especially close to Olander, who saw them deliver a title that he hadn’t anticipated coming when it did. The group made last season’s 5A state championship game — falling to Centennial League rival Overland — and were able to take that next step just a year later.

They all played their parts in the championship game: Ross finished with a game-high 15 points and Ozor had 12, Walton contributed six points and drew three charges, Forsberg knocked down a pair of 3-pointers and Bokol chipped in three points and banged in the post.

“Last year I thought we had the pieces that if we could get to the final eight, we would be on track to be in a final four this year,” Olander said. “But you can never underestimate the will of Colbey Ross, the fight of Austin Forsberg, the experience of Nate Bokol, the unselfishness of Ikenna Ozor and the acceptance of a role from Josh Walton, plus the other guys who battle each and every day.

“When you have that, good things happen to you.”

Olander finished a season filled with a sense of relief that he wouldn’t have to worry about the future like he had in every season previously.

“I just need to get some time away and enjoy the family and that kind of stuff,” Olander said. “It just feels weird now, like ‘Holy cow, you just did it and now you’re going to walk away?’ But it feels good. It feels right.”

Eaglecrest hired former Doherty coach Jarris Krapcha to take over for Olander.

Grandview senior Michaela Onyenwere celebrates from the bench during the closing seconds of the Wolves’ 61-32 win over Lakewood in the Class 5A girls state basketball championship game on March 11, 2017, at the Denver Coliseum. Onyenwere finished her senior season with a state championship and was selected as Aurora’s first-ever McDonald’s All-American before heading off to play at UCLA. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

STAR MICHAELA ONYENWERE, GRANDVIEW GIRLS CAPTURE ELUSIVE CLASS 5A STATE BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP WITH WIN OVER LAKEWOOD

Michaela Onyenwere walked around the Denver Coliseum cradling the Class 5A girls basketball state championship trophy like a newborn baby March 11.

The prize that she had chased for the last four years and poured everything she had into winning was finally hers after the Wolves’ decisive 61-32 victory over Lakewood in the 5A state championship game.

With even an extra edge to her game than usual, the three-time Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year matched the Tigers’ entire output with 21 points in the first half and finished with 25 as Grandview cruised to the program’s first ever girls basketball title.

The frustrations of three previous trips that fell short all disappeared for Onyenwere as she lovingly clutched the trophy.

“I think the past all goes away; we know how hard we worked and we finally got what we wanted,” Onyenwere said. “To come up short three times, it doesn’t matter with this win. I don’t even care about that.

“All I know is that we won a state championship.”

Indeed coach Josh Ulitzky’s team finally got the title that had eluded the program, which has been steadily working its way into elite status over the last decade.

The Wolves came into the season with high expectations and a veteran lineup that included Onyenwere and fellow seniors Kennede Brown and Lenzi Hudson, plus junior Jaiden Galloway, sophomores Alisha Davis and Allyah Marlett and a few others who saw some playing time a year ago when Grandview lost to ThunderRidge in the semifinals.

Junior Leilah Vigil, a transfer from Highlands Ranch, gave the Wolves the last spark they needed to finally win the championship.

Onyenwere went on to become Aurora’s first McDonald’s All-American Game selection and headed off to UCLA.

Regis Jesuit sophomore Francesca Belibi burst into the national consciousness on Jan. 6, 2017, when she became the first Colorado girls prep basketball player to dunk in a game with a one-handed throwdown against Grand Junction. Belibi’s dunk went viral nationally soon after and she dunked two more times during the season while helping the Raiders to the Class 5A state semifinals. (Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

REGIS JESUIT’S FRANCESCA BELIBI BECOMES INSTANT NATIONAL SENSATION AS FIRST COLORADO GIRLS PREP PLAYER TO DUNK IN A GAME

With a wingspan of more than 6 feet — 79 1/2 inches to be exact — Francesca Belibi clearly has a very wide reach.

But what the Regis Jesuit sophomore accomplished Jan. 6 stretched from coast-to-coast and maybe around the world.

When you are the first known girls prep basketball player in Colorado to dunk in a game, people want to know about it. And they did, quickly after her 1-handed stuff against Grand Junction hit social media.

By the time Belibi got home from the game, it had been the No. 1 highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter countdown. A day later, Belibi t-shirts were for sale in the stands.

A phenomenon happens quickly.

“We’re not talking about a 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6 Brittney Griner, this is a girl who is 6-1 — if that — who can palm a basketball, has a 40-inch vertical and doesn’t even realize yet what she can do,” Regis Jesuit coach Carl Mattei said.

“I tell her ‘you do it in practice regularly, so if you get a chance in a game, go ahead and throw it down.’”

A lifelong tennis player who only took up basketball competitively 14 months earlier, Belibi has now done something that none of her predecessors in the state had done yet.

With just over three minutes remaining in the opening quarter, three Regis Jesuit players trapped a Grand Junction ballhandler near midcourt and forced a pass that ended up in Belibi’s hands.

She jetted toward the basket with three dribbles, took two steps and elevated, putting the ball down with her right hand. From the snap of the rim and the reaction of the crowd and her teammates, Belibi knew she had done something quite remarkable.

“I didn’t expect it to be honest with you, I just did it,” Belibi told the Sentinel after the game. “I didn’t realize it went in until I heard the crowd and the snap (of the rim). Then I definitely heard my teammates. I think the crowd understood the importance of it, the first girl to dunk, but it was completely unexpected.

“I mean, girls don’t dunk.”

Grandview star runner Brie Oakley’s untouchable senior cross country season included a Class 5A state championship, a national title and Gatorade’s Cross Country Runner of the Year award, which she received in a surprise at the school on Jan. 31, 2017. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

GRANDVIEW STAR BRIE OAKLEY BECOMES AURORA’S FIRST WINNER OF GATORADE’S NATIONAL CROSS COUNTRY RUNNER OF YEAR AWARD

Mike Oakley remembers vividly the time is 9-year-old daughter, Brie, left him in the dust during the 2008 Bolder Boulder 10K with absolutely no prior training.

Nine years later, Brie Oakley left everybody in Colorado and the country behind.

That 9-year-old with tremendous fitness, but little understanding of the sport, left her first love — soccer — and climbed to the pinnacle of her new sport in a short time. She won a state championship and a national championship, and earned a Division I scholarship at Cal-Berkeley in just 18 months.

The statistical probability of such a rise is staggering, so fittingly, it was in her statistics class at Grandview on Jan. 31 that Oakley got the biggest surprise of her life.

In the door walked two-time Olympian Molly Huddle with the hefty Gatorade National Runner of the Year trophy to present to Oakley, the first winner from an Aurora school of the organization’s national award, which has been given out since 1985.

“They really surprised me,” Oakley said afterward. “Looking back on it, I should have picked up on it. My teacher was doing a statistics problem with me in it and a girl raised her hand and said ‘What is the probability that Brie is Gatorade’s National Athlete of the Year?’ and Ms. Powell said ‘100 percent.’

“It was amazing.”

Oakley also was honored by the Sportswomen of Colorado at its awards ceremony in March, was selected female prep athlete of the year by the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame and won the 3,200 meters at the 5A state track meet in the spring to help the Wolves capture the state championship.

Members of the Grandview girls track team do a victory lap with the banner the Wolves got for winning the Class 5A state championship on May 21, 2017, at Jefferson County Stadium. Grandview scored 120 points, the most for a girls team at state since 2000. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

AURORA BOYS AND GIRLS BURN UP TRACK AT CLASS 5A STATE TRACK MEET, GRANDVIEW GIRLS RUN AWAY WITH FIRST STATE CHAMPIONSHIP

Aurora boys and girls burn up track at Class 5A state meet

The Class 5A state track meet proved exceptionally fruitful for Aurora track and field athletes and teams May 19-21, as they combined to win the girls team championship (Grandview) as well as nine event titles.

Coach John Reyes’ Wolves scored 120 points at the state meet — the most for a Colorado girls team since George Washington scored 124 in 2000 — and got state titles from Brie Oakley (3,200 meters) and Kylee Harr (high jump) individually along with relay championship in the 4×200 meters (Kameryn and Kennede Brown, Michaela Onyenwere and Lily Williams), 4×400 meters (Lily Williams, Kaitlyn Mercer, Kennede Brown and Michaela Onyenwere) and 800 meter sprint medley (Kameryn Brown, Harr, Williams and Jordyn Moore).

Cherokee Trail’s Sydnee Larkin earned the state championship in the triple jump and teamed with Jaiden Paris, Taylor Watson and Chian DeLoach to win the 4×100 meter relay as well.

On the boys side, Hinkley repeated as the No. 3 team in the 5A standings with a trio of championships from Darrien Wells (400 meters) and Angel Heredia (his second straight in the 300 meter hurdles) and the 4×200 relay team of Wells, Heredia, Casey Sharpe and Oscar Sarabia.

Grandview senior Gabriel Baumgartner, center, is congratulated by Wolves head coach Ryan Budd, right, and assistant Brian Timberman after he won the 285-pound championship match at the Class 5A state wrestling tournament on March 21, 2017, at the Pepsi Center. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

GRANDVIEW’S GABE BAUMGARTNER FINISHES LONG ROAD TO BECOMING A CLASS 5A STATE WRESTLING CHAMPION AS A SENIOR

Grandview senior heavyweight Gabe Baumgartner completed a transformation from project early in his prep wrestling career to state champion as he won the 285-pound title at the Class 5A state wrestling tournament.

An exhausted Baumgartner outlasted Brighton’s Tanner Aitken for a 4-2 overtime win to earn a place atop the medal podium at the Pepsi Center.

“I felt like I was in a dream when I finished the match, so I had to ask the ref if I had actually won it, because I wasn’t quite sure,” Baumgartner said. “I was still dazed and I thought ‘did I actually win this? I realized it afterwards when my hand was raised, but I was like ‘oh my gosh, this is amazing.’

The Cherokee Trail trio of Josh Richardson, Zeke Silva and Max Gonzales all finished as 5A runners-up at Pepsi Center.

Boosted by the support of her teammates, Grandview sophomore Amy Chitkoksoong, left, captured the Class 5A girls golf state championship on the third hole of a playoff with Highlands Ranch’s Jenna Chun on May 23, 2017, at The Club at Rolling Hills. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

GRANDVIEW’S AMY CHITKOKSOONG WINS 5A GIRLS GOLF CROWN

In the final event of the 2016-17 prep athletic season, Grandview sophomore Amy Chitkoksoong survived a playoff to win the Class 5A girls golf state championship on May 23 at The Club at Rolling Hills in Golden.

Chitkoksoong sat in fifth place after the opening round, but steadily climbed the leaderboard until she finished in a tie with Highlands Ranch’s Jenna Chun.

A bogey putt on the third playoff hole with Chun made Chitkoksoong the first individual state champion for coach Mary Danielson’s Grandview program, which won the 5A team title in 2016.

Grandview senior Jessica Hixson hugs teammates after the Wolves’ Class 5A girls soccer state championship three-peat quest came to an end with a loss to Mountain Vista on penalty kicks on May 20, 2017, at Legacy Stadium. The Wolves had a 13-game postseason winning streak snapped. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

WOLVES’ GIRLS SOCCER THREE-PEAT RUN ENDS EARLY

Coach Tari Wood’s Grandview girls soccer team had itself in position for a shot at winning a third straight Class 5A state championship if it could get past Mountain Vista in a semifinal May 20 at Legacy Stadium, site of many of the Wolves’ past victories.

Grandview’s three-peat wasn’t meant to be, however, as the Golden Eagles prevailed with a victory on penalty kicks to dethrone the Wolves. Wood’s team had a 36-game unbeaten streak snapped in the season opener against Regis Jesuit and had its season end with its first postseason loss since the 2014 season.

Defender Taylor Parker, a University of Denver signee, later was named an NSCAA All-American.

Other highlights of the first half of 2017:

• The Regis Jesuit boys swim team finished second behind Fossil Ridge at the Class 5A state meet May 20. The Raiders didn’t have an event state champion for the first time since 1989.

• The Regis Jesuit boys lacrosse team came up short in its quest to repeat as Class 5A state champions with a 17-8 loss to Cherry Creek May 19 at Mile High Stadium.

• The Regis Jesuit ice hockey team led Monarch 1-0 in the state championship game, but eventually fell 2-1 to the Coyotes March 6 at Magness Arena.