Colorado Christian University joined the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference in the summer of 1997. Since then, there have been plenty of league tournament and even championship game appearances for the blue and gold. In the 17 years since joining the conference, however, there has never been a Cougar squad crowned RMAC Tournament champs.
After clawing and grinding their way through a dramatically rocky season, CCU Women's Basketball can finally exhale. The work the team started in October came to fruition Saturday in Grand Junction, as the battered, braced, taped, and repaired squad stood tall in the league's final game. In front of a proud collection of CCU faithful, the third-seeded Cougars gutted out a 52-44 win over Colorado State Pueblo to earn Colorado Christian University their first-ever RMAC Championship.
"When we took over the program seven years ago, we made a short list of dreams," explained a proud CCU Head Coach Tim Hays after the historic win. "Not just short term goals, but dreams. Big picture things that we felt like we wanted to get done at some point, this was definitely one of them. This is just such an honor to get to be a part of."
Of course, dreams very often take work, and the dream that came true for CCU on Saturday was no different. As is the case for any team, blood, sweat, and tears covered the ground on the journey, with years of dedicated players chipping in to lay a solid foundation. This year, the blood and the tears were literal, as critical injuries to key players early on had most wondering if the Cougars would even make it through the season. The losses piled up, and the able bodies dwindled, but by then the foundation had already been laid. The squad was destined for greatness because the greatness had already begun.
"Watching this team overcome struggles and hardships has been the most rewarding thing for all of us," reflected junior guard Taylor Torres. "The 0-8 start was very hard – it was deflating, and we questioned a lot of things, but we figured it out as a team when we found our purpose and our drive. I have teammates that are going to step up and play no matter what. I'm so excited for these girls and this team and this family that we were able to step up together and do it."
From the night's opening tip, it was clear the Cougars had come to play. The blue and gold seeped enthusiasm and energy from the bench to the paint, and maintained their levels for 40 minutes. Now famous for stingy defense and generous offense, the Christian squad patiently stuck to their guns, playing their game whether down by ten (midway through the first half) or up by eight (with five seconds left to play). That patience paid off in the way of open looks and timely stops, and the Cougars led for more than 24 minutes as a result.
At the half time break, however, it wasn't obvious who the victor would be. Though CCU led by three (26-23), the squads had nearly identical offensive and defensive numbers. Separation would come in the second half, as little by little the Cougars tipped the scales with makes from downtown and at the foul line. With All-Tournament guards Torres and Christina Whitelaw (MVP) setting the pace, Christian inched away from the perennially tough CSUP squad. Though the Thunderwolves would threaten time and again, the Cougars just kept answering.
By the time free throws were inevitable, it was clear Colorado Christian would take it all. CCU's rowdy following – never quiet through 40 – delighted in the result.
"CCU is a big family," continued Hays. "People got on the bus and drove for five hours just to be in the stands for one game, not knowing the outcome, whether we were going to get to celebrate or not. There's a tight knit on our campus that is very different from a lot of other schools. I think it's just an incredible thing to be able to look up at the crowd in an away game and have it feel like a home game down the stretch. We're so proud and excited to represent CCU."
Torres echoed Hays' sentiment.
"It's so encouraging to know that we're not alone. I know our campus is small and we don't have a ton of people, but we're strong. It was awesome to have them there."
Torres finished the game with 16 points, thanks in part to a 6-for-6 showing from the charity stripe. The Colorado Springs native made every one of CCU's points from the line in the win. Whitelaw got in on the action too, scoring 11 and dishing out four assists, while freshman Ali Meyer brought down eight timely boards. Claire Paxton – Christian's third All-Tournament team pick – added ten points and two assists.
Now, after the net has been cut down, the pictures posed for, the hugs given, and the celebratory steak eaten, Colorado Christian will set their collective jaw once again. Another dream sits on the horizon, and thanks to Saturday's win, opportunity just may get the Cougars there. Automatic qualifiers for the NCAA DII Tournament, the CCU squad will focus, get back to work. A trip to the Texas panhandle and the 2015 South Central Regional awaits them. See details at Field for 2015 Division II Women's Basketball Championship announced.
"We're having a blast. We don't want it to end," Hays concluded. "So if it's Texas, we'll go to Texas. Whoever stands in front of us, it's not going to matter. We're going to be focused on us and what we need to do. We're just going to absolutely enjoy the ride and be happy that we had the opportunity."
"I'm just excited to keep playing with this team," said Paxton at night's end. "I don't want the year to end. Playing with these girls is more fun than any team I've ever been on."
Perhaps its poetry. Or maybe that's exactly how it should be. Whatever the case, the 2015 RMAC Tournament Champs will face tomorrow like they've faced every tomorrow so far: ready to fight, unwilling to lie down, resilient and focused and stronger because they're facing tomorrow together. That's a good thing, because there are many more dreams to chase…and a lot more history to be made.