Warriors deliver lesson to Mountain Vista

Craig Harper

The upstart with a new coach, lofty goals and a chip on its shoulder - but missing two key players - ventured on the road seeking a breakthrough victory against a seasoned, senior-laden team ranked No. 2 in Class 5A.

But Mountain Vista learned the hard way that Arapahoe also is a team on a mission, and the deep, talented and focused Warriors weren’t about to play the role of unwitting victim in the teams’ first post-holiday break game.

Sparked by its relentless full-court defensive pressure, Arapahoe never let the Golden Eagles get untracked and rolled to a 74-38 victory Saturday afternoon. In contrast to their shaky first half in their previous outing, a 57-46 victory over 4A top-ranked Broomfield on Dec. 18, the Warriors roared to a 35-8 halftime lead.

Mountain Vista committed 25 turnovers and went without a basket for a 12:41 stretch in the half.

With the win the Warriors took over the top-spot in the latest poll, released Monday, leapfrogging idle Grandview.

“I’m always hoping for it,’’ Arapahoe coach Jerry Knafelc said of the fast start. “But I know that we were chomping at the bit to get to a game and were really ready to play. And I know for a fact (Mountain Vista would) want to come in and prove something and I did discus that amongst our team. We wanted to make sure they didn’t.’’

Arapahoe, with nine seniors back from a 2012-13 squad that went 19-6 and as the No. 2 seed lost by one point to ThunderRidge in the Sweet 16 of the state tournament, improved to 9-0, including double-figure wins over Ralston Valley and ThunderRidge, both on the periphery of the top 10 in the Denver Post’s late-December poll. The Warriors opened play in the Centennial League - which includes top-ranked Grandview - against No. 10 Cherry Creek on Wednesday.

“They’re a top 1-2 team in the state, no doubt about it,’’ said Mountain Vista coach Mike Willahan.

And the way last season ended still eats away at Arapahoe. “Our girls have worked really, really hard,’’ Knafelc said. “We had a good year last year but it ended in a disappointing fashion for all of them. So they have worked very focused and diligently to improve on that.’’

“Most of our girls played last year and a lot of them played the year before,’’ Knafelc said of his team’s experience. “I am blessed to have the players I have.’’

One question stumps Knafelc: Who is Arapahoe’s best player?

“It depends on the night,’’ he replied. “We are pretty balanced … 11 deep every night.’’

Case in point: 11 Warriors scored against Mountain Vista, led by Karlyn Johnson with 17 points (11 in the first half), junior Mikaela Moore (13) and sophomore Jenna Knafelc (11), none of whom ranked among the team’s top four scorers in the first eight games. Moore (9) and Johnson (8) led the way in rebounds.

Jerry Knafelc found one bone to pick. The Warriors, who shot 70 percent from the free throw line before the holiday break, went 7-for-19 (.368) on Saturday.

Mountain Vista had won nine straight since a season-opening 51-48 loss to Loveland. But Willahan, an assistant for 4A runner-up D’Evelyn last season, said the Golden Eagles felt somewhat slighted for not receiving votes in the early 5A polls and viewed the Arapahoe game as an opportunity to open people’s eyes.

“It wasn’t the showing that we wanted,’’ Willahan said. “We talk about taking advantage of opportunities and this was a good opportunity. But that’s why they’re the No. 2-ranked team.’’

Willahan lamented missed good scoring chances at the outset of the game.

Maddie Whetstone (8 points) hit a 3-pointer about a minute and a half into the game to make it 4-3 Arapahoe, but the Golden Eagles didn’t score again until the 6:23 mark of the second quarter and didn’t make their second field goal until Whetstone connected on a drive with 1:35 left. Mountain Vista shot 2-of-19 from the floor (1-13 from 3-point range) and 3-of-8 from the foul line in addition to its 25 turnovers (for 17 Arapahoe points) in the half.

Arapahoe scored the final 18 points of the first quarter for a 22-3 lead (Mountain Vista also missed two free throws), and the Golden Eagles didn’t score following Whetstone’s trey until junior point guard Jordan Graff (8 points) made two free throws with 6:23 left in the second quarter.

Mountain Vista played better in the second half, limiting its turnovers to nine with Chelsea Pearson scoring 13 of her team-high 14 points, though Arapahoe built a 40-point lead early in the fourth quarter.

It didn’t help that Mountain Vista played without injured 6-2 junior Mikalah Hughes, its second-leading rebounder, and junior co-captain Maddy Wilmes (personal reason) - both of whom Willahan expects will be back when the Golden Eagles begin Continental League play.

“That’s no excuse,’’ Willahan said. “Hat’s off to Arapahoe. We played well in spurts but if we’re going to get to their level we’ve got to be more consistent for 32 minutes, and we’re just not there yet.’’

Mountain Vista hosts Montbello on Friday before opening play in the always-demanding Continental League, which features four top-10 teams.

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