DENVER — This one's for Jeff!
Headed by the same emotions-on-his-sleeve head coach for the past 24 seasons, the Longmont High boys basketball program has been so close, so many times, to achieving the ultimate goal of a state championship. Jeff Kloster's resume, which stands up against some of the greatest head coaches in Colorado boys hoops annals was, for a long time, one that did not include that elusive gold ball.
But on Saturday at the Denver Coliseum, that drought ended thanks to a group of players that saw through the underdog mantra they were pinned with at the beginning of the season, as the Trojans took down a lengthier and, on-paper, meaner Lewis-Palmer 62-59 in thrilling fashion to earn the program's first title since 1942.
Well after the arena was cleared of patrons and the teams had long left the playing surface following Oakley Dehning's 3-pointer with 25 seconds left broke a 59-59 tie and proved to be the game-winner, a deafening silence was all the sudden breached by chants of "We love Kloster! We love Kloster!" from the concourse, where the players first got the chance to celebrate in full with their friends and family.
For Kloster, it marked a significant moment not for him but for the high school — the same high school he graduated from well before he took over as coach in 1994.
"It's a long time coming for Longmont High School and I am just honored to be a part of this," Kloster said. "I give all the glory to God and all the glory to my kids. My kids are tremendous.
"I'm a graduate of Longmont, I've lived in Longmont for most of my life ... I'm always going to back up my high school. These young men, they're achievers and they deserve this."
Senior players Caden Dion and Luke Johnson, both who saw a sprinkle of minutes on varsity as freshmen when the Trojans last made a finals appearance and were certainly instrumental in handling the Rangers on Saturday, could hardly contain their emotions when it came to talking about delivering for their coach.
"It's just an amazing feeling. My freshman and sophomore year we came so close, it was pretty heartbreaking to see him not get it because he's been around so long," Johnson said after finishing with 23 points in his final high school contest. "We just wanted to do it for him, really. He's made this program what it is."
Added Dion, who was tasked with guarding Lewis-Palmer's top player, Joel Scott: "I'm so thankful. I'm so happy for him and that we were able to do it. He's been there so many times, and it was about time for him to get it."
The 2017-18 season will be remembered for LHS (26-2) flying under the radar all season. After losing to Skyline at home to end the regular-season schedule, the Trojans arguably cost themselves one home playoff game. But they went to Falcon in the quarterfinals and enforced their will on the Falcons. Against big and bad Pueblo South in Friday's semifinals, the Trojans played loose on their way to a dominant second half and an 11-point victory over the top-seeded Colts.
The Rangers (25-3), led by Scott, were the No. 2 seed and a recent champion with a great pedigree. But that seeding also comes with added pressure to perform — something the Trojans really never had to worry about.
Longmont's relaxed play, the confidence in being able to drive the ball and kick out when needed, was evident from the start as four different players hit 3-pointers in the first quarter and LHS took a 19-10 lead into the second.
With Dion doing all he could to keep Scott from taking over, the Trojans managed to build a 41-23 lead halfway through the third quarter and finish off the frame with a 15-point cushion.
As it turned out, Longmont would need all those 15 points. Turnovers, which LHS avoided throughout the first half, became a problem in the fourth quarter — and so did the overall ability of the Rangers that guided them through so many tough wins.
Scott, whose older brother Josh starred at CU under Tad Boyle, was a one-man wrecking crew in the fourth quarter as he claimed 15 of his 25 points in the final frame, but a mix of 3-pointers from Ethan Forrester, Carter Kleischer and Matthew Ragsdale turned the game on its head with about one minute to go.
Scott's steal and finish with 40 seconds left tied the game 59-59 — Lewis-Palmer had trailed by 12 with 6:31 left.
However, on Longmont's next possession, Brady Renck drove the lane and kicked out to Dehning, and the junior managed to sink the biggest shot of the season for his team. The next time down the floor, Scott was called for an offensive foul as he barreled down the lane.
The Rangers still got the ball after Dehning missed a free-throw that could have sealed it, but a corner 3-pointer bounced off the rim as time expired and the Trojans were allowed to breathe again.
"It as definitely a little nerve-wracking but we all had confidence that we could finish it," Johnson said.
"We used the mantra, they might think we're underdogs but we think we're hungry dogs," said Kloster, whose teams had made six previous Final Fours and two championship games. "That was something that took us all the way to the end because we kept believing each other. Everyone played a part."
Clutch shots were made all night long, and once again Longmont was the deeper team on the scoresheet. Johnson had 23 and Jaydon Elkins added 12 huge points including nine in the second half. Dion had nine, Beck Page hit two early 3-pointers off the bench to finish with six points, and Calvin Seamons had all five of his points in the third quarter.
Again, perhaps surprisingly, Longmont won the rebound battle and had 14 assists to Lewis-Palmer's seven.
Longmont 62, Lewis-Palmer 59
At Denver Coliseum
Luke Johnson 8 6-8 23, Brady Renck 0 2-2 2, Jaydon Elkins 5 0-0 12, Dallas Dye 0 0-2 0, Oakley Dehning 2 0-1 5, Caden Dion 3 1-2 9, Beck Page 2 0-0 6, Calvin Seamons 2 0-0 5. Totals 22 9-15 62.
Joel Scott 6 13-16 25, Salim Nehme 0 0-0 0, Carter Kreischer 3 2-4 9, Noah Baca 1 1-2 3, Ragsdale 5 0-0 13, Ethan Forrester 2 0-0 5, Dominic Roma 0 2-2 2, Tre McCullough 0 1-2 1. Totals 18 18-24 59.
Score by quarters:Longmont1982114—62
3-point field goals — Longmont (9): Elkins 2, Dion 2, Page 2, Seamons, Dehning, Johnson; Lewis-Palmer (5): Ragsdale 3, Kreischer, Forrester. Total fouls — Longmont 19, Lewis-Palmer 18. Fouled out — Dion.