The turnaround started exactly one month ago today, believes Pine Creek senior captains Taylor Cross and Mackenzie Swan.
The Eagles volleyball team had just lost a heartbreaking five-set match to archrival Rampart 3-2, dropping Pine Creek to 8-5.
But then the light bulb went off. The lack of team chemistry disappeared as did the selfishness. Pine Creek got back to the basics, playing with a team-first mentality that stressed defense and grittiness.
It was potentially a blessing in disguise, and the Eagles (19-6) have been soaring since by winning 11 of their final 12 matches to storm into the 5A state tournament as the No. 10 seed.
"We didn't believe we should have lost that game," Cross said. "Having us lose was kind of like having that turning point saying 'Hey you really do need to step up your game because we have all the talent and we have everything.' We just weren't really executing it."
Ever since that loss to Rampart, which was awarded the No. 8 seed, Swan has witnessed the Eagles come together as a cohesive team on the court. However, the setter, who was a freshman on Pine Creek's 2010 state runner-up squad, says there was also a three-day stretch two weeks after the Rampart loss that really helped Pine Creek realize its potential. The Eagles swept 4A power Cheyenne Mountain (22-3) 3-0, then defeated fellow 5A state title contender No. 7 Doherty (20-5) 3-0, two days later, thanks to a rally from 10 points down in the second set.
"To come back and end up winning, I think that really boosted our confidence and was like we can basically do anything now," Swan said. "If we are down we can still come back because we proved we easily can."
It may not be easy, but Pine Creek is peaking at the right time as it enters the state tournament in a tough pool against No. 3 Fossil Ridge (24-1) and No. 6 Eaglecrest (19-6) - a team that defeated the Eagles 3-0 earlier this season.
With the junior tandem of Alyssa Brinton (205 kills) and Kristina Susak (204) ready to go on the outside, and Swan and her fellow setter Megan Hamstad (450 assists) running the offense, the Eagles feel they can make some noise at Denver Coliseum on Friday and Saturday.
They have been a scrappy team all season, and this is the time of year where anything can happen, co-coach Shelley Lockwood said.
"Anybody can upset anybody at any time at this point," Lockwood said, pointing out how No. 12 Castle View stunned Regis in regionals. "Our main goal is to focus on what we are doing well, and that is whatever six are on the court working as a team, working as one."
Lockwood said Pine Creek is not concerned about seeding, records or who it will see on the other side of the net. It will all be up to the Eagles doing what they have done all season long.
"Something crazy is probably going to happen at state, it usually does, but we like where we are sitting," Lockwood said. "We know we have great teams, but you have to beat them all to win state anyways."
Cross echoed her coach's sentiments after saying one of the biggest improvements compared to the beginning of the year is how Pine Creek has been able to handle pressure situations and counter teams' enthusiasm on the court.
"We're at that level where we are no longer fazed by the fact that we're going against opponents that are so high ranked, that we just focus on what we have to do and we don't focus on 'Oh they are No. 1' or 'They have this hitter that is All-American' and all that kind of stuff," she said.
She said that despite this year's team lacking the height that Pine Creek boasted her freshman year, the 2013 version has better ball movement, is scrappier and clearly has better chemistry.
"As a team we can collectively do it," Swan said. "The dream would be to win it."