LOVELAND -- The Hi-Plains boys basketball team is a cohesive unit with star power. Avery Marzolf, Justin Miltenberger, and their “band of brothers,” as Miltenberger puts it, were good enough to claim the Class 1A crown on Saturday evening at the Budweiser Events Center.
In a wild finish, the Patriots claimed their first state championship since 2008 -- they also won in 2006 -- with a 52-51 survival of powerhouse Caliche.
Caliche came in as the faster, more athletic team that loved to play at breakneck speed from the tip. Hi-Plains can get up and down the floor, but were the more solid team in the half-court entering the 1A finale. The more versatile Patriots won out in a game that treated fans with speed, clutch shots, and even a highlight-reel dunk by Caliche’s Dakota Kingsley.
Both teams started the contest with great intensity in a heated, loud environment. The Patriots’ Avery Marzolf, a 6-foot-4 senior forward with strength, made his presence felt against the smaller Buffaloes with two quick buckets in the paint. That proved to be a preview of what was to come.
In a game filled with lead changes, Hi-Plains led 50-44 with 54.7 seconds remaining on the clock, but the Buffaloes never quit with back-to-back baskets.
Justin Miltenberger, a high scoring guard, got fouled with 16 ticks left on the clock. He proceeded to bury two free-throws to give the Patriots a 52-48 lead.
Caliche’s Austin Yahn drained a trifecta with only 2.6 seconds left to cut the deficit to one. They fouled Hi-Plains’ Clay Cordell, who missed a pair to give the Buffaloes one last hope, but Caliche failed to get a shot off before the buzzer sounded.
Hi-Plains was overcome with ecstasy after the game.
“Words don’t describe it,” Hi-Plains coach Dave Sheffield said. “They’ve done so much work. To see it pay off, that’s what it’s all about. I can’t really put it into words.”
“It’s kind of surreal,” Miltenberger said about claiming the gold ball. “You think of this as little kids, but until it actually hits you. It’s incredible.”
“I don’t even know yet,” Marzolf said about trying to explain his joy.
Marzolf was a force throughout the game and a major matchup problem for Caliche. He scored 22 points and grabbed numerous rebounds. He was humble about his performance in the title game afterwards.
“Honestly, I do the easy part,” Marzolf said. “Those kids that bring it up, that stopped their penetration, they’re the ones that should be getting interviewed right now. Alex Nelson, remember that kid. He’s the hardest working kid in the state.”
His coach was quick to praise the big man, though.
“He’s incredibly versatile,” Sheffield said. “I think he’s the best player in the state. He’s a point guard, he’s a five, he can range to the three, and he ran however many positions today.”
Miltenberger came through with a bucket seemingly every time Hi-Plains needed one. He chipped in 12 points and played tough defense.
“He’s a stretch three, he’s our best free-throw shooter, he’s a kid that’s going to come through in the clutch and he did,” Sheffield said of Miltenberger.
Both Sheffield and his players agreed that the key to the title run was hard work and the cohesion of the squad.
“Everybody looks out for each other,” Miltenberger said. “It’s all about helping out friends. It’s all about helping the other guy.”
“We stayed together,” Marzolf added. “We’re a family. It’s just everybody right there, playing together as one, and we were successful.”
“These guys got in the yellow bus with me before their freshman year and we started traveling to summer camps. We worked and we worked and we worked and work gets you something,” Sheffield concluded.
Caliche, winners of four straight boys basketball titles until last season when they placed fourth, were denied an eighth title overall, but have a bright future with first-year coach Derek Weingardt at the helm. Weingardt was a 2009 graduate of Caliche who was groomed under legendary coach Randy Kirkwood. The Buffaloes are a traditional small-school power who finished 23-3 this season.
It was Hi-Plains’ night on Saturday, though, and Sheffield, who earned his third state championship as a coach, knows what that means to the town of Seibert, a tiny place in the Eastern Plains.
“Any small town to win a championship is huge,” Sheffield said. “We’re a school with 45 high school kids. It means the world to small towns and the community.”