The Shining Mountain Lions completed the regular season with a 52-22 win over Mile High Academy on Tuesday. With the win, the Lions finished undefeated in the 5280 League and 14-5 overall.
Making the feat even more impressive was the youth the Lions have this season, with seven of the 10 players on the varsity roster being in their freshmen or sophomore year.
"I was pleasantly surprised," Shining Mountain coach Mike Hawkes said. "We were getting better every day. We didn't have high expectations going in, but each game went by and I saw more improvement from them."
The players, though, have lofty goals for what they want to accomplish in their high school careers.
"They set some goals a long time ago to play in state tournament," Hawkes said. "We keep it on the back burner and just focus on getting better every day."
Sophomore Frances Hilliard leads the team with 14.9 points per game and has scored in double figures in 14 straight games. The freshmen have also stepped up with Kalea Zeender scoring 7.6 points per game and Sophia Matarrese anchoring the team down low with 5.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. The underclassmen for Shining Mountain make up 85 percent of the team's scoring, as well as 77 percent of rebounds, 85 percent of assists and 81 percent of steals.
Hawkes also mentioned the leadership from his lone senior Amrita Shore as a big help for the maturity of his younger players stepping into large roles with the team.
Shining Mountain began the season by winning the Hanover Holiday Invitational and then defeating Front Range Christian to open the season 3-0. After losing two games in the Prairie Classic, the Lions faced two big tests before winter break in the Briggsdale Falcons and the Dawson Mustangs. Briggsdale, ranked No. 3 team in the CHSAA 1A polls this week, defeated the Lions 69-31 on Dec. 18. Two days later, the Lions lost a halftime lead to Dawson and fell 40-37 on their home floor.
Hawkes said the tough games before winter break showed his team the areas they needed to work on when they returned, adding that he and his team never got down on themselves with the losing streak.
"We didn't dwell on those tough losses," Hawkes said. "We had a few games before break that we scheduled tough opponents to test ourselves. Against Dawson, we came away feeling good having held them under their season average and scoring over ours. We just put a concentrated effort from that point on defense and that led to more offense."
In the 12 games played after the break, the Lions looked like a completely different team. They held opponents to an average of just under 24 points per game, including four games where teams scored 20 points or fewer. While the defense was shutting teams down, the Lions scored 41 points or more in each game as well. It led to an 11-1 finish to the regular season, highlighted by the 42-36 win over the Bellview Christian Bruins that proved to be the game to determine the league championship.
The District 8 tournament begins Saturday for teams in the 5280 League, but Shining Mountain will receive a forfeit due to the Denver Academy of Torah not having enough athletes to suit up for the game. With the bye into the semifinals, the Lions are focused on getting over the hump they could not do last year and win in the semifinal round on Tuesday to reach the district championship game. A win in the semifinal round would see the Lions qualify for regionals and move one step closer towards the back burner goal of playing in the state tournament.
"I have a high level of confidence in them," Hawkes said. "At the same time, we don't have the experience going this deep as one of the top seeds in our district. We'll see how they handle it and how they manage the mental game that goes with the higher pressure in the postseason."