The impression left by the Dove Creek Class of 2023 will be hang around for a long time in the hallways of Dove Creek High School.
Their imprint spanned the breadth of the athletic programs, and with one final time on the basketball court together, five Dove Creek seniors made a curtain call on an incredible season, and fantastic careers for Bulldogs basketball.
In their third-place contest against Flatirons Academy of Westminster, the Bulldogs earned the program’s highest state placement in school history, making a statement against the two-time defending state champions, controlling the game nearly wire-to-wire to hoist the third-place trophy with a 40-28 win.
The Bulldogs (23-3) smothered Flatirons Academy (23-3) in the final three quarters, limiting the high-scoring Bison to only eight points in the second and third quarters – a part of their lowest point output of the season.
“This has been such a special group,” said sixth-year head coach Julie Kibel, “and they’ve grown up together, from the seniors to the underclassmen. Having a group like this – they’re few and far between.”
After Dove Creek went up 5-0 in the opening minute, thanks to a pair of field goals by juniors Kalie and Kylie Gatlin, the Bison responded with six straight points to take their only lead of the game at 6-5.
From there, as she has all tournament, senior Lexi Gray dictated play in the paint, scoring seven straight points for the Bulldogs to help the No. 4 seed build a 13-8 lead early in the second quarter.
Flatirons’ Kenlee Durrill briefly responded, with an and-one to tie the game, but a Rylee Hickman three-pointer late in the second quarter sent the Bulldogs to the locker room up 16-13.
Then, the Bulldogs shifted gears.
The defense clamped down on every Bison possession, while Kylie Gatlin started to heat up from the field. She outscored the Bison by herself in the third quarter, while Dove Creek spread their lead to double figures, 27-16, after three quarters.
“We knew they had good outside shooters, but we wanted take something away from them, so we went with a two-three zone,” said Kibel, “but to our girls’ credit, we didn’t come out flat – they moved so well on defense the whole game.”
Fitting, that the Bulldogs would get plenty of senior highlights to close out their trophy-winning performance, as Hickman, Gray, Trista Barnett and Kaylin Smith scored in the second half to close out the win.
The Bulldogs built their largest lead, 39-23, on a pair of Smith free throws, before the final seconds ticked away inside the Bank of Colorado Arena at UNC in Greeley, and the Bulldogs shared jubilant and bittersweet embraces, capping an exciting and emotional run.
“We started this goal when they were in sixth grade,” added Kibel, of her senior group, “and they stuck with it, worked through every hard practice, every tear we’ve cried when we fell short – they stayed together through it all.”
Kylie Gatlin’s 13 points led the Bulldogs, while Gray added 11 points, and Hickman, 9. Barnett tallied 3 points, while Smith and Kalie Gatlin each picked up 2.
Durrill led the Bison with 13 points in her final game with the Bison, while junior Emma Cox added 10 in the losing effort.
In the midst of it all, Kibel has now led the program six consecutive winning seasons, back-to-back 20-win seasons, and a third consecutive appearance in the Great Eight. She credits the student-athletes with making her job easier.
“This is the reason you coach,” reflected Kibel. “When you are around young women who listen to you, have a common goal, and work toward it – that’s the beauty of this sport. They’re learning things that they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. I’ll always cherish watching them grow into the women that they’ve become.”
Dove Creek posted 23 wins this season, collected a league, district and regional title.