COLORADO SPRINGS — For nearly 20 years, ThunderRidge has been trying to get back to the top of the mountain. The Grizzlies have had their chances, even coming painstakingly close on one of them.
The fifth attempt turned out to be the charm as they knocked off George Washington 68-59 to claim the Class 5A boys basketball championship at the Broadmoor World Arena.
It's the first championship for ThunderRidge since the school won back to back titles in 2002 and 2003.
"I can't tell you how many times I've thought about that," coach Joe Ortiz said. "I've chronologically gone through every year and how they've finished several times. I did it today."
He did it with the weight of the missed opportunities sitting on his shoulder. For the next year when he thinks about the chronological finish, it ends with his guys as the defending state champions.
He knew it was never going to be easy, however. This was the third matchup between the Grizzlies (13-2 overall) and the Patriots (13-4). George came away with the first win and the lesson learned from that one remained fresh in ThunderRidge's mind at the start of the state title game.
"The first game we just realized they were a physical team," Jason Simental said. "Nobody could really match up with us before so they were the first team to really put it to us."
The game plan for the Patriots was pretty simple. Apply pressure and be the more physical group. It worked for the first quarter as the teams were locked in a 16-16 tie, but ThunderRidge clamped down in the second and held George to just four point on one field goal and two free throws.
"It helps playing here to be honest," Ortiz said. "It's a bigger court, it's a bigger feel and in a smaller type of confined area it's tougher because there's more pressure. Our big guy Nolan Marld was huge. He's a mismatch and they're not going to pressure him with a guard."
Marld led all scorers with 17 points and Simental added 16. Joey Bilello and Jackson Brennan also scored in double figures, Brennan getting all 11 of his points in the first half. Zach Keller had nine, nearly giving the Grizzlies five players in double figures.
"We have a very balanced team," Ortiz said.
ThunderRidge last played in the 5A title game in 2015 and lost to Overland 55-42. George Washington made it to back-to-back title games in 2017 and 2018 but lost to Eaglecrest and Grandview, respectively.
Jarmell Johnson and Kijuan Thompson led the Patriots with 10 points each, but the combined effort keeps a state basketball title out of George's grasp for at least another season.
For ThunderRidge, it's the culmination of a championship drought that began before anyone on the roster was even born.
"We were on a dry streak but we came here to break it," Simental said. "We had to do that."