Published: March 13, 2014
Early in the second quarter at Air Force's Clune Arena, fans of the Colorado Springs Christian School boys' basketball team endured a shock.
Their favorite team only led by 8 points in the Class 3A state quarterfinals against Denver Science & Tech.
"I was a little worried there," said CSCS coach Mark Engesser.
Engesser and his Lions eventually rolled to a 69-49 win over DS&T that was not as close as the score. This taste of adversity was strange for the 22-3 Lions, who recently completed a staggeringly impressive run through 3A competition in the Pikes Peak area.
The Tigers won 16 games by more than 20 points, 11 by more than 30 points, nine by more than 40 points, four by more than 50 points and one by more than 70 points.
Sophomore center Sam Howard shrugged as he considered all those beatdowns.
"We don't want to embarrass anybody," Howard said. "We just want to play to the best of our God-given abilities and let the rest take care of itself."
This march of devastation, game after game of routs, might have seemed cruel, but it was necessary. All during January and February, the Lions realized the tough guys from the Denver area - Holy Family and Faith Christian - awaited them at the state tournament.
The Lions were not focused on beating lesser opponents by 50. They were focused on winning a state title.
Junior point guard Chris Hildenbrand would have enjoyed tense nights in January and February.
"It would have been nice just to have that feeling of pressure, and we didn't really have that," Hildenbrand said. "We had to treat each of those games kind of like a practice. It was just mainly mental preparation for the playoffs."
Hildenbrand often examines the scores of 3A teams playing each other in the Denver area. He sees close games, and feels a pang of jealousy. He seldom experiences such drama in the Colorado Springs area.
"You see our scores. We blow them out," Hildenbrand said. "There's just not much of competition there."
Don't worry, Chris. Competition will arrive Friday in the state semifinals.
Coach Engesser tried to deliver more drama into the season. He asked every 4A school in the Springs area for a game, but only three - Air Academy, Widefield and Falcon - said yes.
Most of the rest of the teams CSCS faced had no chance. The Lions boasted too much firepower. Freshman Justin Engesser, the coach's son, is a future college player, and CSCS's frontline is as tall as the college team's that plays in Clune. Howard is a sturdy 6-foot-7, and he's flanked by 6-foot-9 Nic Doherty.
At times on Thursday, it looked as if Howard and Doherty were playing volleyball. DS&T's tallest player is 6-foot-3.
Despite all of CSCS's upside, the team might be a season away from being ready for a berth in the state final. The Lions are talented but young. Nobody on the squad is a senior. CSCS will start next season as the favorite to rule 3A, but will head into Friday's game as a slight underdog.
The key could be Hildenbrand. He serves as the team's on-court leader, and if he can keep his more youthful teammates calm yet fiery, the Lions could roll into Saturday's final.
These are, finally, nights of drama for the Lions. Too bad they had to wait so long for genuine competition.