– As Class 5A'a top-ranked team in the weekly coaches poll by The Denver Post, Highlands Ranch
boys basketball has garnered a certain level of respect around Colorado.
Perhaps telling, though, is that the Falcons haven't won everyone over just yet. Despite being the last undefeated team in the classification, two coaches did not vote for Highlands Ranch in the top spot last week. Human error or bias can't entirely be blamed, as even the computer-generated MaxPreps rankings have the Falcons No. 2 in 5A
Well, after running through a solid schedule in the season's opening month, Highlands Ranch (16-0) has not played a team with a winning record since beating Columbine on Dec. 21. That stretch of seven consecutive games against sub-.500 teams ends this week as the Falcons finally meet the other powers of the Continental League, the toughest contingent in the state.
Most certainly, this is what the doubters have been waiting for.
"Sure, I think that's fair," said Highlands Ranch coach Bob Caton. "We've been waiting, too. From here on out we have a lot tougher schedule. We know that."
After beating up on the bottom half of the top-heavy Continental, Highlands Ranch gets it first league test tonight against Legend (Parker)
, which was ranked No. 10 last week. Looming at the end of the week is a matchup against three-time defending champion and fifth-ranked Regis Jesuit (Aurora)
Down the stretch are three more contests against Top 10 teams: league games against ThunderRidge (Highlands Ranch)
and Chaparral (Parker)
and the season finale against perennial contender Denver East
. Chaparral and Denver East were the two teams that also earned a No. 1 vote.
The Falcons are just as excited about the prospects of the upcoming schedule.
"We've got two Top 10 teams, so it will be a good week," senior Austin Haldorson
said before practice Monday. "We've had a few tough games early, and (since) we have been practicing just as hard as if we had had hard games.
"Our focus is on Legend right now, but we are definitely excited for Regis and the rest of the season."
The 6-foot-9 Haldorson is one of the top players in the classification and the leader for an athletic Falcons team that has great size and a deep bench. They are at their best in transition with a bevy of ballhandlers and finishers, and they take particular pride in their defense.
Haldorson, who plans to play collegiately at Wyoming, is the key at both ends of the court. He averages a team-leading 16.9 points and 3.9 assists offensively, while collecting 9 rebounds and 3.3 blocks an outing defensively. Of note, he set a school record with 10 blocks last week against Castle View.
As a testament to his versatility, which pretty much applies to the entire Falcons roster, Haldorson frequently has the ball in his hands on the press break, can step outside and hit the 3-pointer and despite his size often plays out front when the Falcons drop into a zone defense.
"I played a lot of the big man role last year, and now I get the ball a lot more in my hands for dribbling especially," said Haldorson, who had offers from 10 Division I programs, including Nevada, Air Force and Denver. "This past summer I brought up the ball on my club team, practicing to get ready for college but I still need a lot of work."
The Falcons have been able to free up Haldorson because of the presence down low of Steve Donatell
(6-5), Austin Vahling
(6-7), Zach Braxton
(6-7), James Thomas
(6-5) and Connor Healy
(6-5). The sizable front line is as formidable as any in the state.
Donatell, who has verbally committed to play football at Wake Forest, is one of three Falcons scoring in double figures at 10.5 points. Senior guard Brett Brady
is second on the team at 15.5 points. He averaged only 4.5 points a season ago.
"From last year, I've just had to step up and provide more scoring and more ball handling, and be more of a leader than I used to," Brady said.
Haldorson, Brady and Donatell had much different roles last season when the Falcons advanced to the state semifinals behind Brett Olson, who is performing well in his freshman season at the University of Denver. Haldorson averaged only 6.3 points, Donatell just 5.1.
"Our three seniors, who were a main part of last year's team, have been great," Caton said. "We are a little more inexperienced overall than what last year's team was, though. We've had to put a bunch of pieces together.
"In certain ways, I'm a little surprised at where we are right now. I didn't foresee us being 16-0 now. I thought we might stub our toe here or there."
Caton cited the inside presence of Vahling, who played junior varsity last season, the rugged sophomore Braxton and speedy and diminutive point guard Renz Ragub
(5-5) as some of those key complementary pieces.
Also, added to an already quality bench five games ago were Healy and Isaiah Parros
, who stands 6-3. The duo, which is averaging more than 13 points combined, had to sit the first half of the season per state transfer rules after coming over from Castle View and Cherokee Trail, respectively.
It's obvious the affable Caton is confident in the makeup of his fifth team at Highlands Ranch. Any coach in the state would love to have that blend of size, speed and athleticism.
Still, he has seen a lot in his 30 years of coaching, which has included previous stops at Manual, Denver West, George Washington, Lincoln and Aurora Central. He has twice led teams to the state finals (GW in 2001, Aurora Central in 2007), but has come away without a title.
Both runner-up teams were seeded No. 1 in the tournament (Aurora Central entered the postseason undefeated), so Caton knows very well that the favorite doesn't always prevail.
"It takes a little luck to get wherever you are going to go," Caton said. "Whether it's the final eight, the final four or the finals, you have to get the right matchups and you can't have a bad game at the wrong time."
The Falcons haven't had one yet.