HIGHLANDS RANCH – ThunderRidge coach Joe Ortiz doesn’t hesitate to reveal the Grizzlies success formula.
It starts with defense and ends with defense.
ThunderRidge, ranked No. 4 in the Class 5A state rankings, used a solid defensive effort to down Highlands Ranch, 59-47, in a Continental League game before a capacity crowd Friday night at the Grizzly Den.
The Grizzlies improved to 4-0 in the league and 13-4 overall. ThunderRidge remains tied for the Continental League with unbeaten and No. 2 Mountain Vista which whipped Douglas County, 91-64, Friday night.
Highlands Ranch is now 3-2 in league play and 11-5 overall.
“We’re a pretty good defensive program, that’s really probably our identity,” said Ortiz. “We didn’t shoot well but for us to win we need to be defensive minded.”
Highlands Ranch never seemed to get into a good offensive flow against the Grizzlies. The Falcons shot 40.9 percent for the game but turned the ball over and 11 of the miscues came in the first half when ThunderRidge got off to a quick start.
Joe Marucci, the Grizzlies 6-foot senior, had 11 of his 19 points in the first half as ThunderRidge held a 30-20 lead at the intermission.
“We got up early and Joe kind of sparked us,” said Ortiz. “We got some buckets and we got out of the break. There’s so much emotion. You worry about the kids being too worked up. It’s like they’re moving through sand and in slow motion. You don’t want them to get too hyper so it was nice to get off to a good start.”
Marucci echoed the thoughts of his coach.
“It’s always important to throw the first punch,” Marucci said.
Zach Braxton, the Falcons’ 6-8 junior center, scored the first four points as Highlands Ranch grabbed its only lead of the game at 4-2 with 1:52 elapsed in the game.
Braxton, however, didn’t score again the rest of the first half. The Falcons did a better job of getting the ball inside in the final two quarters and Braxton finished the game with 11 points.
“We shut Braxton down and (Evan) Motlong, their shooter,” said Marucci. “He’s a fine shooter and our game plan was to stop him.”
Motlong, the Falcon’s leading scorer with a 16 point average, wound up with 14 points.
Highlands Ranch trailed by 15 points in the third period but trimmed the Grizzlies lead to eight points at 51-43 with 2:42 remaining in the game. However, the Falcons went 0-for-5 from the field and turned the ball over once in their four possessions.
“It was scary,” admitted Ortiz. “We kind of kept that 10-point lead and they would seem to get there and then we’d make a bucket. We tried to get separation but we couldn’t. We had turnovers but the lead stayed there and the game kind of went away. We were fortunate to have the lead at that point.”
Besides Marucci, ThunderRidge’s other top scorer was Peter Howell with 11 points. Zach Rusk, the team’s leading scorer with a 17.5 average, had only one field goal and wound up with seven points. He made four straight free throws in the final 52 seconds to seal ThunderRidge’s sixth straight victory.
“They did a good trying to wear him down,” said Ortiz.” But Zach is about the team, about the shots and about us and other guys had to step up. He’s still our best player and had a great game.”
In other Continental League boys action Friday night, Heritage beat Castle View, 66-63, and Chaparral downed Ponderosa, 66-48. Littleton edged Rock Canyon, 60-56