BOULDER -- Pueblo East coach Dave Ryder is going out on top.
After 29 years of teaching, 10 years as Pueblo East’s boys basketball head coach and four years before that as a volunteer coach, Ryder coached his last game for the Eagles on Saturday night at the Coors Events Center in Boulder. And what a Class 4A state championship game it was for Pueblo East.
The Eagles claimed the school’s first basketball state title with a 58-51 victory over Denver South.
“You couldn’t have scripted it any better,” Ryder said. “I’m so happy and proud of these kids. The work they put in. It’s hard not to be emotional.”
Ryder guided Pueblo East to the 4A title game in 2010. The Eagles lost the championship game four years ago. Saturday was only the third trip to the championship game for the program. Pueblo East was also runner-ups in 1977.
“It feels crazy,” Pueblo East senior TJ Gradisar said. “To do it with this group of guys is a dream come true.”
Gradisar was instrumental in sealing the victory in the fourth quarter. The senior guard had a huge 3-pointer to give Pueblo East a 47-46 lead with 4:55 left in the fourth quarter. He was 5-for-9 from the free-throw line in the final quarter as the Eagles outscored the Rebels 14-5 in the final five minutes.
“We wish we could have hit some more of those free throws so we could breath a little easier,” Gradisar could say with a smile about the Eagles missing 10 free throws in the fourth quarter. “Our defense was able to make up for those misses.”
A defensive play by Pueblo East senior Jimmy Valdez in the final minute really closed the deal for the Eagles. Valdez picked the pocket of Denver South senior Ibrahim Sylla on a drive to the basket with 36 seconds left. Sylla committed his fifth foul after Valdez grabbed the steal.
Valdez hit one of two free throws to extend Pueblo East’s lead to 56-49 with under a minute to play. The senior struggled in the first half going 0-for-6 from the field and being held scoreless.
“I didn’t want to let it get to me. I didn’t want it to bother me,” said Valdez, who was 5-for-5 from the field in the second half and finished with 13 points. “I wanted to come out and attack the rim, get some open shots. I made the right cuts and the right time.”
Senior Dylan Gavin had a solid game for Pueblo East with a game-high 16 points and also grabbed 12 rebounds.
Pueblo East got off to a great start with senior Alex Jara leading the way. Jara poured in seven points in the opening quarter. The Eagles led 15-4 with 1:20 remaining in the first quarter.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better start,” Ryder said. “Denver South is really, really good and they came back. That’s why they are in the championship game. We kept responding and being resilient.”
Denver South answered with 9-0 run and took the lead on a 3-pointer from senior Tyson Purifoy midway through the second quarter at 18-17. The teams traded baskets before halftime. The Eagles managed to take a 23-22 lead into half.
Sylla finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds for Denver East. Purifoy had 16 points in his final game for the Rebels. Denver South struggled shooting the ball (38.9 percent) and also had issues at the free-throw line making just 5 of 12 for the game, including going 2-for-8 in the fourth quarter.
“I guess you could say it was tightness. I’m sure that played a part in it,” Denver South coach Malik Fletcher said of the rough free throw shooting. “We just didn’t make the shots that we normally make.”
Seven state basketball trophies are encased at Denver South, but the Rebels haven’t won a championship since 1970, which was also the team’s last trip to the championship game.
“Our mission was to win the championship. It’s still disappointing,” said Fletcher, who completed is first year at South. “In retrospect, a second-place finish will be good for the school, for morale and the program itself. Still, you want to win a championship.”
Pueblo East was able to attain its ultimate goal of hoisting the championship trophy for the first time in school history.
“It’s a great feeling,” Valdez said. “It’s a great win for the city and most of all for us.”