Valor Christian's boys basketball team headed into the 2016-17 season with great expectations.
The Eagles lived up to them by winning the Class 4A state championship, 68-55 over Lewis-Palmer on March 11.
With nine seniors returning from last season's state runner-up team, a state championship was the main objective for the Eagles this year.
“This was kind of mission one all year long,” said second-year coach Troy Pachner, who won a 3A state title at D'Evelyn in 2004. “We needed to do it. We needed to move this program to the next level. We've been there for a long time and I have to give credit to the guys before me that laid a good foundation. We feel like we kind of took the next step and we want to stay there.”
Jalen Sanders, the Eagles' 6-foot-5 senior scoring leader for the season, could never erase thoughts of redemption after a 70-51 loss to Pueblo West in the 2016 title game.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” Sanders said. “We had a senior retreat and we talked about that last week. We just wanted this championship. It's my dream come true. It feels better than I ever thought it would feel.”
Senior Kayle Knuckles, a 6-6 forward, agreed.
“I'm just glad we got the win,” he said. “We have nine seniors on the team — we all came out and said we have to play our hearts out.”
Knuckles led the team with 32 points and 13 rebounds.
The top-seeded Eagles never trailed in the title game at the Denver Coliseum after Knuckles scored the first basket of the game as Valor went on to win its 16th straight game and end the season with a 24-4 record.
Lewis-Palmer had momentum in the third period and pulled to within four points, but Knuckles stalled the rally with a 3-point basket and an old-fashioned 3-point play off an assist from Sanders.
“That just kind of ended the game at that moment,” Pachner said. “Lewis-Palmer was very well coached and that was a great team. Every time they got close, Kayle had a dagger, whether it was a 3-ball or at the rim, and it was special.”
Knuckles passed on taking all the credit.
“It was big to get our lead back up to be more comfortable, but I wouldn't have scored without everybody passing me the ball,” he said.
Sanders finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists, while senior guard Keisan Crosby had 12 points and six assists for the Eagles, who shot 53.1 percent from the field.
“It feels great to win the championship,” Pachner said. “I thought we had an outstanding year. The whole group deserves this. Defensively, what I liked about this group, we could press, play straight up or mix some zone in. They had great basketball aptitude. It's like anything in the closet would work.”