MONUMENT — He never yelled. Never screamed, never shouted, never so much as shot one of those steely coaches glares at one of his guys. Not once in 32 basketball minutes on Saturday night did Bill Benton even raise his voice.
He had chances, too. As well as Lewis-Palmer played in a 75-62 win against Sierra in the second round of the boys basketball state tournament — the Rangers mostly looked the part of the No. 2 seed in this Class 4A shindig — it’s not like his Rangers were perfect. Sierra (13-12) is a young, tough squad that had it within eight points in the fourth against Lewis-Palmer (22-2).
And as the bracket narrows to 16 teams, then eight, then four, then two, Lewis-Palmer could struggle against foes with quick guards who can shift its defense or a big man who summons foul trouble. You know, like everyone else in Colorado high school basketball. The teams that have those things — top-shelf quickness and old-fashioned brawn — are probably still playing.
"I think our guys pay attention to what the guys have done here before them," Benton said. "They know what's expected."
That's the biggest thing about Lewis-Palmer. If we're being honest, the Rangers probably shouldn’t be here with a No. 2 seed in the Class 4A tournament, alongside No. 1 Pueblo South, No. 3 Golden and No. 4 Falcon as the title contenders — simply because programs don't lose as many seniors as they lost and do it all over again the next season. These guys lost a ton — talent, experience and intestinal fortitude from a state runner-up and even Benton, who knew what he had coming in, didn’t expect this much, this fast.
“They handle wearing the bullseye,” Benton said. “They embrace it.”
So here’s hoping the supporters of L-P basketball know how good they have it, how returning to the state stage with a lofty seed is hardly a given in prep hoops. Showing only two losses — with a playing rotation that looks nothing like it did a year ago — is something you can't take for granted.
The beat goes on and on and sometimes you wonder where they find all these 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6 guys who arrive on the varsity scene able to dribble, pass and shoot. Tre McCullough, for example, played in five games last season and now he’s the sixth man. Noah Baca, Salim Nehme and Carter Kreischer were role players last season. Saturday, Kreischer had 10 points. Then there’s Matthew Ragsdale, a low-key gem of a player who jumped out to me inside Lewis-Palmer's gym. Ol’ “Rags” had 19 points, even if it looks like he won’t shave for another 10 years. And what was he doing this time last season?
“Mostly JV, but I swung to varsity a few times,” said Ragsdale, who, if he keeps working at it, someday will play college ball.
And there’s a Scott at Lewis-Palmer, because there’s always a Scott at Lewis-Palmer. Joel poured in 33 points, and that’s a season-high for the 6-6 junior.
“Maybe,” said Scott, who made 13 of 14 foul shots. “Probably.”
See? Stats and headlines take a backseat with L-P, and that’s another reason why the Rangers are almost always here — in the state tournament with a chance to win the whole enchilada, no matter how many seniors they lose, no matter how steep the competition in Class 4A. The last nine seasons show two state titles, one runner-up, four Final Fours, one Elite Eight and a second-round loss. And they're on their way again.
But don’t ignore the handiwork of Sierra and coach Terry Dunn, one of the finest coaches at any level of basketball in Colorado. Dunn was afforded one returning starter this season — Derrian Reed, who led the Stallions with 19 points and also represents their only senior.
“You don’t ever want to lose your last game, but only one team gets to say that,” Dunn said. “I’m proud of these guys. They worked hard. They did what I asked. We’ll be back here. I’m already looking forward to next year.”
This was a tough draw for Sierra, which just didn’t have the horses to run with an established outfit like L-P — not this time around, at least.
“That’s, what, the 34th-best team?” Benton said, referring to Sierra’s seed. “Holy cow.”
And that was the loudest I heard Benton on Saturday night — “holy cow.” When there’s a winning culture in place, guys know what they’re supposed to do and when they’re supposed to do it. No screaming necessary.