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MEEKER — Eleven years ago, when Klark Kindler took over as basketball coach at Meeker, the school didn’t have much of a tradition in basketball.
Things sure have changed.
Both the boys’ and girls’ teams advanced to the 2A state tournament this season, believed to be a first, with the boys placing third, their highest finish ever, and the girls fourth.
When Kindler arrived on the scene, however, the Cowboys didn’t automatically become a state-caliber team. It took time to build the program.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of success before I got here, and we didn’t have a whole lot of success my first few years, either,” Kindler said. “My third or fourth year, we went to the district tournament and lost by three in overtime to Cedar Ridge. After that, we got a lot more competitive.”
Now, expectations are considerably higher. But even in the days when the team wasn’t winning, it had the backing of the community.
“I always felt we had great community support,” Kindler said. “I can remember my second year, the girls and boys both struggled and we were playing Olathe, and the gym was packed. So, we’ve always gotten great support, but they were more excited this year.”
With good reason.
The boys cruised through the regular season with only one loss, on their way to winning the league title.
The lone regular-season loss came in the first game after the Christmas break. It was against league foe Plateau Valley, though it was a non-league game. No coach ever wants to lose, but the loss turned out to be an attention-getter for Kindler’s team.
“We didn’t want to show them a lot of stuff, because I knew we were going to play them again two weeks later,” Kindler said. “You never want to lose, but it helped us focus. It showed that us, hey, we are beatable.”
Kindler blamed himself for the loss, though it wasn’t indicative of how the team played throughout the season.
“I thought we had a great season,” Kindler said. “Like I told the kids after the last game, with the exception of that one game we lost to Plateau Valley, we were ready to play. The one game we weren’t ready to play, it was my fault that I didn’t get them ready.”
At the state tournament in Pueblo, the Cowboys won their first game, narrowly, against Sanford, 47-43, giving Meeker its first first-round win at a state basketball tournament since 1967, when the Cowboys took fourth.
But in the next game against Colorado Springs School, the eventual state champs, Meeker lost 66-41.
Kindler didn’t think the Cowboys played their best ball in the first two games at state.
“The first two games, I thought we played tight,” Kindler said. “I think we were trying a little bit too hard.”
Going into the third-place game, Kindler wondered how his team would respond after a loss.
“You never know if they are going to come out a little flat,” Kindler said. “But we talked about how no team (from Meeker) had ever won third place at the state tournament. So we were playing for something.”
The Cowboys responded just the way Kindler hoped they would.
“Brian (Crowe) came out and hit his first three shots, and I think when he did that, everyone else settled in to playing the way we had throughout the year,” Kindler said.
Meeker easily beat Ignacio, 56-41, in the third-place game, with the senior Crowe, playing in his final game for the Cowboys, leading the way with 22 points. Junior Mitch Jacob, who was chosen for the all-tournament team, chipped in with 14.
The Cowboys featured balanced scoring throughout the season, with Crowe averaging 13.6 points per game, Jacob 13.3 and Dakota Rowlett, another junior, 12.8.
“Five of our top six players led us in scoring at one time or another in a game this season,” Kindler said.
He knew, as the season went along, the Cowboys had a chance to make it to state, and even win it.
“When you get to the state tournament, you have to have some things go right for you,” Kindler said. “Toward the end of the year, when we played Hayden and Rangely, the way we played in those games, I thought we might have a chance (to win state). That’s when it really started coming together, and I knew we’ve got something special. When we finished that weekend, I thought there was a chance we could win it.”
Even though the Cowboys came up short in their hope of winning it all, Meeker finished the season with a 25-2 record and was ranked as high as second in the state.
Last season, the Cowboys finished with a 15-6 season record, but two years ago they went to the state tournament, for the first time since 1992, and fashioned a 22-4 record.
“I think we’re starting to build that (basketball tradition),” Kindler said. “At the state tournament, I noticed a lot of kids who had played in the last 11 years, who were there. There were four guys from the first team I coached, 11 years ago, who came to watch the games. You try to build on something like that.”
One former Meeker player, Dale Dunbar, who played for the Cowboys back in the 1970s, when they didn’t win a game in his first two seasons, says the program is on the rise.
“It’s probably the best (record) in my memory,” Dunbar said.
As far as next season’s team, Kindler expects more good things. The Cowboys will have everybody back, except seniors Crowe and Clinton Kilduff.
“We will have four of five starters back,” Kindler said. “I’m hoping one of the underclassmen will step into that role (of replacing Crowe as the starting point guard). I think we have kids who are capable. With a good summer of getting more experience, we’ve got some kids who could step into that role and really contribute. The thing that helps us right now is we have a lot of depth in our program. We’ve got 11 or 12 players who can contribute one way or another.”
While expectations will be high again for next season’s team, Kindler said it’s a sign of how far the program has come.
“I know our expectations and our goals will be to get back (to the state tournament),” Kindler said. “Our goal is to get to the state tournament every year. It’s probably everyone’s goal, but the last few years, its been a realistic goal for us.”