A year ago the Vanguard boys’ basketball team won the program’s first playoff game.

Flash forward to 2019 and the Coursers have some bigger aspirations — a 3A state championship.

But in its first test of the state tournament, No. 4 Vanguard had to go into survival mode against No. 24 Strasburg before clinching a not-so-comfortable 67-60 win over the Indians.

Vanguard led by 11 heading into the fourth quarter, but Strasburg’s Mitch Davis dropped back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Indians some momentum. Strasburg eventually went on an eight-point run in the middle of the fourth quarter.

Vanguard switched from a zone defense to eliminate Davis’ dangerous outside shots.

“We don’t give up easy shots, that’s not who we are, I’m not sure what it really was tonight,” Vanguard coach Joe Wetters said. “(Davis) hit a bunch in a row so my assistants were screaming at me to switch the defense.”

In the end the Coursers did just enough to fend off Strasburg, but they know if they want to get over the second-round hump, they’ll have to play better on Saturday against No. 20 Gunnison, which defeated No. 12 CSCS 47-40 on Friday.

“I think we have to play our best defensive games here tomorrow to make it to the next round,” Wetters said. “We can’t be giving up easy shots and we have to take more of the shots that we’ve been taking all year and that’s been something we had to force today.”

But this group, according to senior Seth Fuqua, is ready. Earlier this year — just after Fuqua scored his 2,000th career point — Fuqua told The Gazette that this group is experienced enough, and hungry enough to raise the state championship trophy. Last year after winning the program’s first playoff game, Vanguard was knocked out in the second round.

“With the crowd and the size of the moment, we can’t let that get to us. And I feel like our senior kids can handle it. We have two of the best players in the state on our team so we feel confident,” Wetters said, referencing Fuqua and junior Dominique Clifford.

Clifford grew five inches in the offseason, leading him to be not only a flashy dunker, but also the team’s leading rebounder and all-around threat in the key.

“He has kind of a Mamba Kobe Bryant mentality attacking the rim and just enforcing who he is with his skills,” Wetters said. “He’s kind of the glue that holds us all together — Seth is the engine, but ‘Nique is the glue and we depend on him defensively because he’s a rebounding monster.”

Now measuring in at 6-foot-4, Clifford can use his height and varsity experience to take pressure off Fuqua, who is typically opponents’ top target, averaging 25.2 points per game.

“Last year we made it to the same position we are in now, so we are used to that ‘Sweet 16’ feeling and it’s intense,” Clifford said. “We are definitely locked in more than we were last year and we know the things we have to do to come out and win this game. Our experience last year is definitely going to help us push through and get past where we were last year and hopefully make it to the ‘Elite 8’.”

Fuqua led the team with 22 points, while Clifford dropped 19. Junior Joseph Padilla scored 10 for the Coursers.

“I knew I was going to step up this year and help lead our team to where we want to be, so I knew I needed to pick up my play this year,” Clifford said. “Me and Seth are best friends so it’s easy feeding off of him and I know I can count on him.”

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