Middle Park boys basketball hits new heights with first league title in nearly 50 years | SkyHiNews.com

Middle Park boys basketball hits new heights with first league title in nearly 50 years

Panthers among top 3A teams heading into playoffs

Andy Bockelman

Today’s basketball players strive to follow in the footsteps of stars like Nikola Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden, the three most recent NBA MVPs.

Those wearing the jerseys of The Joker, The Greek Freak, or The Beard and other current ballers in the halls of Middle Park High School have reason to celebrate this season as the Panthers have achieved something they haven’t done since Dave Cowens, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Willis Reed were the biggest names of the sport.

Middle Park boys basketball achieved their first league championship since 1973, sweeping all comers within the 3A/2A Frontier League as part of what’s been a phenomenal year by any standard.

Now in his third year running the boys hoops program, head coach Todd Williams has had dual winning seasons — 15-6 in 2019-20 and 9-5 in the shortened 2020-21 schedule — but both of those saw Middle Park players struggling to rise to the top of their conference.

In 2020, they finished as runners-up to DSST: Montview, while last year it was The Pinnacle that took the title. And, despite otherwise positive season records over the years, Middle Park has time and again just missed that accolade.

This year, however, has felt different.

“It’s not by mistake or by chance; these guys have worked for it,” Williams said. “They set this as a goal, and they’ve been able to come through and complete that in the regular season.”

Middle Park athletic director Mike Reigan consulted the school’s 1973 yearbook to get a sense of the last league championship in boys hoops.

“John Gausman was the first-year coach in that year, and he took them all the way through the league. Eleven wins and one loss in the league,” he said.

Reigan, who recently headed the girls basketball program, credited Williams with putting together a roster that’s been able to succeed.

“It’s been a long, uphill struggle, but Todd has done a great job since he’s taken over a couple years ago,” Reigan said. “It’s a relatively tough league at the top. Not so much all the way down, but the way it always works is the top four or five teams are usually pretty good.”

Williams in turn pointed out the amount of talent and determination his athletes have shown.

“We’ve got a good group of senior leaders, and that always helps. Then our junior class is really deep, and they’ve all put a lot of time and effort into it,” he said. “Just about every big game we’ve had, it’s been our defense at some point and time that has turned the game. Whether it’s a big stop or steal or something along those lines, when we’ve needed to, we’ve been able to get those things that help us win games.”

Coming off a junior season that saw him take all-conference and all-state honorable mention distinctions, senior Seth Holestine has shone in his final year as a Panther, including leading the team in most statistical categories — averaging 19.4 points, 4.1 assists, and 3.9 steals per game throughout the regular season, and ranked in the top five among Frontier players in each.

“He’s been one of the best players in our league and we count on him for a lot,” Williams said. “From that junior class, Corbin Solomon, Brady Paugh, Ethan Blake, they’ve all really taken a huge step forward this year. We’ve got a lot of guys who know their roles, whether that’s defending or rebounding or whatever, everybody’s really stepped up and that’s really shown.”

Middle Park senior Seth Holestine dunks the ball versus Lake County on Feb. 10 at MPHS. The Panthers won 81-52 to remain undefeated in Frontier League play.
Eli Pace/Sky-Hi News

That high level of effort has been across the board, he added.

“I think it’s that comfort zone of where I know the kids, the kids know me, I’ve got a staff that’s coming back that’s been with me for a couple years,” Williams said. “This year it finally started clicking, and we’re all on the same page.”

At 17-2, it hasn’t been a perfect season, though the crew has learned and grown from their only two losses: an early December defeat in tournament play to Denver West and a Jan. 13 road loss of 73-63 to Moffat County.

“We lost a dog fight over there. That was a tough game for us. That was a bad one,” Williams said.

Both are teams Middle Park could see later in the playoffs. However, in the past month, it’s been 11 consecutive wins, with the team following the league title with a decisive W in the quarterfinals of the district tourney this week, pushing past Bennett 57-23 on Tuesday night.

Out of all the league games, Williams said the win over DSST: Montview was easily the best. Less because of the conference title — which they had already clinched at that point — and more because it was a solid team effort against a perennial foe that has always proved daunting.

In fact, the last time the Panthers defeated the Knights was Feb. 11, 2012 — nearly 10 years to the day when Middle Park finally turned the tables Feb. 12 in a 58-47 triumph.

“For us to go down and play at their place as well as we did, that’s been the highlight so far,” Williams said. “I think their confidence has grown as the year has gone on. We talked about it a lot in the offseason: believing that we could contend, and every game they’ve had a little more confidence and really started believing that it was the truth, so they played like that.”

Middle Park junior Tj Tibbetts drives the hoop against Lake County on Feb. 10 at MPHS.
Eli Pace/Sky-Hi News

The district event continues this weekend as the top-seeded Panthers rematch The Pinnacle on Friday night on the Timberwolves’ home floor. Another victory will have Middle Park in the finals Saturday, facing either No. 2 The Academy or third-seeded DSST.

More victories will only help as Middle Park coaches look forward to the possibility of hosting regional rounds of the 3A playoffs. Consistently in the top 10 of the Ratings Percentage Index by CHSAA, the Panthers hold a good chance of being a regional site even if they fall in districts.

“That’s never a given for regionals, but we’ll find out on Sunday if we get to host,” Reigan said.

Williams said the gym has been increasingly more raucous as the season has continued.

“Coming off COVID last year, it’s been awesome having our community and our students back in the gym cheering us on,” he said. “The last few games we’ve had some great crowds.”

Now that his players have achieved the league title they set their sights on, Williams said he believes they can stay the course for the games that will depend on them keeping the same energy that has helped them succeed.

“Our big thing is embracing your roles, do what you do and then enjoy this ride,” he said. “It’s been a special year for us up to this point, so we hope to keep going.”

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