Those wondering which teams will be in the mix for the girls' basketball 3A state tournament come mid-March need only look to the Tri-Peaks League.
Three teams from the league are represented in the Colorado High School Activities Association’s top 10 for all of 3A basketball, St. Mary’s (2), Colorado Springs Christian (3) and defending champion Lamar (6). A fourth team, Manitou Springs was ninth on the list last week and fell off but is still one of the top teams gaining votes.
St. Mary’s is the top team in the league with a 9-0 record. The Pirates average 59.7 points, the second-highest average in Class 3A basketball. The highest average belongs to CSCS at 66. The Lions are 7-2, Lamar is 6-2, The Vanguard School is 5-1 and Manitou Springs is 4-4.
The Tri-Peaks League dominates in other categories as well, such as made 3-pointers. Five teams from the league rank in the top 10 for 3s, with the Pirates and Lions at Nos. 1 and 2 respectively with 46 and 42 3-pointers on the season.
Last season, four teams in the Tri-Peaks League made it to the quarterfinal round of the Class 3A state tournament, a feat St. Mary’s coach Mike Burkett says he hasn’t seen in 19 years of coaching.
“That’s really a testament to this league and how tough it is,” he said.
Burkett’s Pirates lost in the quarterfinal to top-ranked Sterling. CSCS and Lamar advanced, however, and made it past the Final Four to make it an all-Tri-Peaks League final.
Since then, the Pirates have been hard at work, playing throughout the summer.
Burkett lauded the team’s preparation, saying St. Mary’s played some 50 or 60 games throughout the summer and even won a tournament in Wichita, Kan.
Burkett and the Pirates have no time to think about where their in-league rivals stand on the season. They are focused on the next game, but Burkett said the tough nature of the league helps prepare St. Mary’s for the postseason.
“It prepares you for life beyond the Tri-Peaks League as far as regionals and the state tournament,” he said.
CSCS coach Mark Engesser said something similar to Burkett, emphasizing that his team focuses on improving daily and taking on some of the best teams inside and outside the area. To that end, the Lions have been busy facing larger schools.
Of the nine games, CSCS faced a 4A or 5A team in five of them, and won three of those contests. The Lions’ two losses came during the Rampart Holiday Classic last week at The Broadmoor World Arena. The defeats came against 10-1 Pueblo West in 4A and 12-1 Fruita Monument in 5A.
Part of the Lions’ success comes from the stellar play of Engesser's daughter, Megan, who leads all of 3A girls' basketball in points per game at 24.4. Megan hit a milestone of 1,000 career points last week.
“Hardest worker I’ve ever coached; boys, girls anything,” Engesser said of his daughter.
It’s high praise as Engesser also coached his two older sons. Justin Engesser and Nate Engesser both reached the 1,000-point milestone and Justin won back-to-back state championships in 2015 and 2016.
As the schedule turns to mid-January, league rivals are going to start seeing each other more often. St. Mary’s plays Manitou on Friday night and hosts Buena Vista (a team that also made the playoffs last season) next Thursday while CSCS plays James Irwin on Friday, The Vanguard School on Wednesday, Manitou the following Wednesday and Lamar the Friday after that.
Those games will give spectators a preview of the games they could witness again deep in the state playoffs.