No matter how many wins her Cherokee Trail girls basketball team puts up outside of the Centennial League, Tammi Traylor-Statewright believes there remains skepticism.
The Cougars went unbeaten in Colorado prior to winter break — which included wins over two of the state’s annual elite, Highlands Ranch and Regis Jesuit — and suffered just one loss at the Tarkanian Classic before the calendar flipped to 2023.
Cherokee Trail moved all the way up to No. 2 in the CHSAANow.com Class 6A coaches poll after it won three non-league games. But Traylor-Statewright believes the true litmus test of her team’s legitimacy as a championship contender is the Centennial League.
“I think people are waiting for us to fall off in conference,” Traylor-Statewright said. “I think people feel like we are going to falter against our league. I’m hoping my kids continue to have a chip on their shoulder because everybody is bringing their A game to us right now.”
The reason for that belief is legitimate given the Centennial League is home to two programs — Grandview and Cherry Creek — that have combined to win five of the last six 5A championships. They would have had a sixth since 2016 in 2020 as both had advanced to face each other in the final, which was wiped out by the sudden onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Junior guard Damara Allen — Cherokee Trail’s leading scorer and a returning All-Centennial League second team selection — liked what she saw from her team in the fall and believed the Cougars were much better equipped to take on league powers this season.
“Confidence is key going against those tougher teams like Grandview, Cherry Creek and Arapahoe, so I feel like we can win and give them a run for their money,” Allen said prior to winter break.
The Cougars (16-2) did get tripped up by Arapahoe — which beat them 62-55 Jan. 28 — but they’ve matched their entire league win total from last season already with victories over Smoky Hill (67-12), Eaglecrest (50-35 in a contest against a Raptors team that was ranked No. 8 in 6A at the time), a notable 60-57 road win at fierce rival Grandview Jan. 30 and a 51-30 defeat of Mullen Feb. 1.
The Wolves graduated three key seniors from last season’s championship-winning team, including McDonald’s All-American Lauren Betts, but still has one of the country’s top recruits in her sister, Sienna, and a young group that has been playing well.
It was a dogfight, but some key late free throws by Allen (who finished with 24 points) and a late chasedown block by junior Alana Biosse helped Cherokee Trail defeat a team that beat it by 20 last season and which had won the last 23 meetings between the schools.
The Cougars have two league games left and finish with a home game against Cherry Creek Feb. 8 that could decide the Centennial League crown. Cherokee Trail may get another look at the top league teams as the Centennial League from two rounds of play to one round with a three-game mini tournament at the end.
One element that gives the Cougars belief that they can hang in any game is the way they play defense. Though not blessed with great size, Traylor-Statewright coaches her guards to “play big” and their chemistry on the defensive end is evident.
Cherokee Trail has allowed an average of just 38 points per game this season.
“We trust each other and know what we need to do,” said sophomore Delainey Miller, one of the team’s key defensive stoppers. “It’s just that team connection that we have. I can’t wait for the rest of the season.”
On the offensive end, four players average eight points or better — Allen at 10.7 ppg, Miller at 9.5, sophomore Madeline Gibbs at 8.5 and Biosse at 8.0 — and three others chip in four or more per contest.
“I tell my girls all the time, they don’t have to stop just one of you, they have to stop all of you,” Traylor-Statewright said. “It’s a team game, so when your opportunity arises, take it.”
Traylor-Statewright has seen fast starts to seasons evaporate before, but believes that this group — which is heavy on juniors and sophomores and has no seniors who play any more than a few minutes — is built to make a run at bettering the program’s deepest postseason run, which has previously been the Sweet 16 (2020 and 2010).
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports