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Valor Christian beats ThunderRidge in Class 6A boys basketball title behind Cole Scherer, stifling second-half defense

Cole Scherer’s game-high 28 points were nice, but the Valor Christian defense was even better.

The Eagles rode that defensive intensity to the Class 6A title on Saturday at the Denver Coliseum, knocking off ThunderRidge 52-40 to claim the program’s second championship and first since 2017.

ThunderRidge had a one-point lead at halftime, but then Valor Christian took control in the third quarter as the Grizzlies’ shooters went ice-cold. ThunderRidge finished 4 of 23 from the field in the second half, including 0 of 13 in the fourth.

“Defense is our identity — all practice, that’s all we do is harp on defense,” Scherer said. “When we get stops on defense, it blows the game open for us, and that’s what happened in the fourth quarter. (First-year head coach Jeff) Platt brought us a defensive culture, and that won us a bunch of games, including today.”

The Grizzlies, in search of their fifth ring under head coach Joe Ortiz, jumped out to a 14-5 lead in the first quarter, but the Eagles didn’t blink.

They clawed back to make it a five-point game heading into the second quarter, then won every frame after that as senior forward Ryan Dixon (nine points), junior forward Brady Wynja (eight) and senior guard Eli Kim (seven) made up the entirety of Valor Christian’s scoring alongside Scherer.

With the win over ThunderRidge, Valor Christian finished 26-2 and avenged both its regular-season losses this weekend. The Jeffco League champions beat Smoky Hill in Friday’s Final Four, then limited the damage by ThunderRidge’s Big Three of Andrew Crawford, Charlie Spann and Tommy Wight to win the title.

“We want to develop that warrior mentality, and we’ve had to build that throughout the season,” Platt said. “It wasn’t who we were Day 1, but we got tougher and stronger as the season went on. Our mantra has been, ‘It’s not what happens, it’s how you respond to it.’ We didn’t flinch all tournament.”

Spann paced the Grizzlies with 18 points, including a couple 3s in the third quarter that helped keep ThunderRidge afloat heading into the fourth. But the CU-bound Crawford disappeared in the second half, failing to score over the final two quarters while finishing with 10 points on 3 of 13 from the field. Wight had six points.

Much of Crawford’s lack of production was due to Valor Christian senior Ryan Mandes, who guarded Crawford for the majority of the game. Mandes missed all four shots he took, but the defensive value he provided was a game-changer.

“He’s been doing that all year, and that’s been an incredible value for our team,” Platt said. “We saw him make two big defensive plays that turned the game (against Smoky Hill) in the second half when we needed that boost, and he did it again today. He did an incredible job of making it hard on a player as good as Crawford.”

In defeat, Ortiz called Scherer a “great player, a dynamic player” while also pointing out his team looked a little “worn down” after emotional, last-second victories over Rock Canyon in the Great 8 and Eaglecrest in the Final Four.

“Maybe it was the fatigue (that caused us to go cold in the fourth),” Ortiz said. “We didn’t get to the right shots, and I thought we had some passes in the first half that we flubbed that had opportunities to be buckets. Then in the second half, we didn’t finish, we got some shots blocked (by Dixon).

“Charlie had a couple big threes (in the third), and that kind of kept us in there, but we needed a little bit more and we were having a hard time containing Scherer.”

Ortiz was coaching in his ninth title game as a head coach, and 13th overall, as he went 2-2 as an assistant under Ron Vlasin at Littleton and Arapahoe. Ortiz, who guided the Grizzlies to the Class 5A titles in 2021 and ’22, is now 4-5 in the big game with ThunderRidge.

“We’re not afraid of losing,” Ortiz said. “This is the ultimate loss, a hard loss, but you’ve got to get yourself here in the first place.”

Meanwhile, Saturday marked Platt’s first state title in a long and winding coaching career.

The son of longtime Division I coach Jim Platt, Jeff Platt has been a varsity coach in three different states and has coached at the Division I and NAIA levels. He came to Valor Christian this year from athletic powerhouse IMG Academy in Florida, where he served as the head coach for five seasons.

“Coaching has been my family’s life, it’s in my blood, and it’s been our livelihood ever since I was born,” Platt said. “So today is pretty sweet.”

The Eagles’ triumph followed up the championship by the Valor Christian girls earlier in the day, as coach Jessika Caldwell’s crew easily beat Regis Jesuit 58-44.

With the wins, Valor Christian joined an exclusive club of schools to sweep both basketball titles in the same season, and became the first to do so in the highest classification since Grandview in 2018.

Holy Family also did it last year in Class 4A, while Faith Christian pulled it off in Class 3A in 2012. Regis Jesuit (2009) and ThunderRidge (2003) did it in Class 5A, Mullen did it in 2006 in boys Class 5A and girls Class 4A, and Lutheran pulled it off in Class 2A in 1985.

And while Quinn VanSickle’s 22 points led the girls to their title, Platt declared that Scherer’s performance in the boys championship cemented the fact that the point guard “has had, by far, the greatest season this year in the state of Colorado from start to finish.”

Scherer averaged 26 points over five tournament games.

“The best player has to be at his best when his best is needed, and that epitomizes what Cole has done throughout the entire tournament,” Platt said. “And he hasn’t just done it scoring the ball. He’s done it controlling the game, with his rebounding, with his effort. He’s been a catalyst for our entire team, and we’ve had a lot of other guys step up and feed off his energy.”

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