Updated: March 12, 2014 at 8:48 pm
Is 2014 the year of the Lion? Colorado Springs Christian School's boys' basketball team hopes so.
CSCS has been one of the most successful 3A programs in the state for the past decade. The Lions have racked up wins and earned high playoff seeds yearly, but it's been 11 years since a golden basketball entered the trophy case.
There have been many teams since it last won the 3A state title in 2003, and each with high expectations. Ironically, the 2013-14 edition may be the one to bring home a title - one which nobody expected at the beginning of the year.
"In 2011, I really felt that we had the best team in the state and we just played a bad game," CSCS coach Mark Engesser said. "That year was the best feeling I had about a team heading into the playoffs. You just don't know sometimes, and you have to show up and see what happens."
In 2011, CSCS was top-seeded and 23-0 entering the regional final, and lost in four overtimes to Jefferson Academy.
The next year, the Lions would place third, and in 2012-13 they were seeded second in the state and were upset in the regional final by The Academy.
"Those two times we lost in the regional final (2011 and 2013), we had beaten those teams in the regular season," Engesser said. "It's tough to beat a good team twice, and we had some bad luck. This year it was two teams we had never faced, and our defense was incredible."
This time around there was no room for an upset. The No. 3 Lions slammed the door on any possible Cinderella story. After defeating Frontier Academy 66-23 in the first round, CSCS crushed Grand Valley 62-19, both at home, to advance to the state quarterfinals.
"I thought this was going to be a building season for me and the whole team, but obviously it's not that way, and we're going to state and having a lot of fun," said freshman Justin Engesser, who averages 12.8 points.
CSCS is 21-3 and has won 20 straight games after starting the season 1-3, which included two loses to 4A competition. They have no seniors on the roster, making this run all the more improbable.
The main difference between this year's team and the past 10 that didn't win the state title? Height. The Lions have two post players over 6-foot-7 on the roster. Nic Doherty (6-9) and Samuel Howard (6-7) create a matchup nightmare for every team.
"Nick is a way better shot blocker than I am," said Howard, who averages 17.7 points and 12.5 rebounds. "He's longer and can jump higher than me, but we're both there to protect the basket. It gives our guards the freedom to put pressure on the other teams' guards and gamble a bit knowing that Nick and I are both back there."
The two giants in the middle have given CSCS a dimension it hasn't had in the past. None of the other seven teams in the quarterfinals have close to that kind of size in the middle.
Justin Engesser knows the advantage his team has with Howard and Doherty.
"It's pretty much pick your poison with us when we're on offense because we throw the ball into our bigs and then if they get doubled we shoot open shots from the outside," he said.
The Lions start their journey to a state title at 1:15 p.m. Thursday at the Air Force Academy against Denver Science and Tech.