Regis Jesuit’s Francesca Belibi shook the Colorado preps world when she became the first girl to dunk in a high school basketball game just six days into 2017.
You knew it was going to be a compelling year in Colorado prep sports when, just six days into 2017, Regis Jesuit sophomore Fran Belibi stole the ball at midcourt, took a few giant leaps and promptly slammed home the first girls basketball dunk in state history.
Belibi’s dunk — which ended up as the No. 1 play on SportsCenter and catapulted her to national recognition — epitomized the energy, passion and athleticism that defined many of the best moments of the year in Colorado high school sports.
In February, Pueblo County‘s Hunter Willits became the 20th wrestler in CHSAA history to win four individual state titles. When he finally secured the feat with a dominating 13-0 major decision over Longmont’s Nathan Morris, the Pepsi Center crowd rose to its feet. Making the moment even sweeter was the fact that his twin brother, Grant Willits, won his third title that same day.
Then in March, the hockey championship rolled around and, once again, Monarch was one win away from the program’s first state title.
But to get it — via a 2-1 comeback victory over defending champion and nemesis Regis Jesuit — the Coyotes had throw the proverbial monkey off their back. They had been to four straight titles and lost them all, but a pair of power-play goals in the third period finally gave Monarch its championship redemption.
Less than a week later, at the Denver Coliseum, Eaglecrest basketball earned its own fairy tale ending.
After longtime coach John Olander led the Raptors to three straight semifinal showings — and a championship game appearance in 2016 — star guard Colby Ross, now at Pepperdine, paced Eaglecrest to the Class 5A title in a 53-47 win over George Washington. The victory sent a red-faced, horse Olander off into happy retirement with his second ring.
The fall championship season was also marked by notable title feats, starting with Legend softball clinching the school’s first state championship in any sport with a 9-3 win over Fossil Ridge on Oct. 21 at Aurora Sports Park. Then, Nov. 11 at the Denver Coliseum, Castle View edged Cherry Creek in volleyball to earn the Sabercats their first team state championship in any sport besides co-ed cheer.
The same weekend Castle View volleyball was establishing its reign, the first-round Class 5A football playoff game between Poudre and eventual state champion Pomona epitomized how preps are about much more than winning and losing.
An Impalas player, junior Josh Cortez, and his mom were killed in a car accident the night before the game, and the way the Panthers supported the Poudre community in their time of loss will long be remembered. During Pomona’s home game at the North Area Athletic Complex, the Panthers presented the Impalas with a customized Cortez jersey at the coin toss and also helped organize fundraising in the stands.
The next week, it was Grandview that made its mark on the 2017 preps calendar with a stunning victory over Valor Christian in the 5A quarterfinals. The two-time defending state champion Eagles were previously undefeated, and the way the Wolves commanded the momentum in a 28-16 win in wintry conditions makes it one of the biggest upsets in recent prep football memory.
And in December, many big-school football fans had their Christmas wishes answered early with the abolishment of the reviled waterfall conference alignment, as 5A is going back to a more traditional alignment based on rivalries and geography for the next cycle.
That news was followed later this month by Rod Sherman’s exit from Valor Christian, a move that left many with more questions than answers considering the coach was 57-11 in five seasons with the school.
CHSAA’s mandatory winter break ends Jan. 2, at which time teams can resume competition. Who will make the headlines in 2018? Likely Belibi again — and then whoever else can pull off feats matching the hoops phenom’s level of intrigue.