3A champions, a rag-gag gang of Outlaws

How does one describe the Yuma High School boys basketball Class 3A championship team?

It’s as easy as 1-2-3 as the Outlaws won each of their Great 8 games by one point, on the way to program’s seventh state title, but first in 3A. That possibly is the first time in Colorado history a state champion won each of its state tournament games by one point.

“It’s just stupid,” head coach Dave Sheffield said. “To win state you have to be fortunate, things have to fall into place, and it definitely did for us. (However) I thought our guys’ effort was tremendous.”

Sheffield should know about winning state titles as this also was his seventh in his esteemed Colorado high school coaching career. That leaves him alone in fourth place in the state’s history for coaches (four at YHS and three at Hi-Plains), and just three from Rudy Carey’s record of 10.

“We’re going to just keep coming, year after year,” Sheffield said.

Perhaps what actually best describes this 2023-24 3A championship team is it’s non-descriptive nature. This gang of Outlaws definitely fit the bill of a rag-tag group, a motley crew if there ever was one.

Most championship contenders are big, strong, athletic — a group obviously with a chance at taking home the gold ball. (Unfortnately, a gold ball no longer is used on the trophy.) The Outlaws’ “big” comes in at 6-foot-3, while the rest of the teams’ short rotation features a crew of players most likely under 6-foot, despite what the listed heights on the program might say.

While the Outlaws had plenty of athleticism, ball skills, and just plain tenacity, one never would guess they would be 3A state champions just by looking at them take the court.

However, they were acutely self-aware, which is a main key in realizing one’s potential.

“We would laugh about that in the locker room,” Sheffield said. “We know we don’t pass the eye test. We walk out on the court, and the guys joked it’s like the other teams are thinking we’re trotting out our JV team.”

Well, the joke is on everyone else.

There were bumps along the way. The Outlaws finished with a 22-4 record. They lost twice to Manual and once to Strasburg, and neither team made the 3A Great 8. They lost for the second straight year to Merino, who did not win the 2A title. Their second loss to Manual put them into the district third-place game, in which they blew most of a 24-point lead before holding on for the win against Stargate. That win, along with Manual’s blowout loss to Forge Christian in the district final, allowed the Outlaws to still host a regional, in which they outlasted a very good Windsor Charter Academy squad to advance to the Great 8.

“We took some losses, but you don’t have to win them all to win state,” Sheffield said. “These guys are very coachable and their togetherness is incredible. They are a great bunch.”

Sophomore Brody Sheffield is the face of the team, and deservedly so with his overall skills offensively and defensively. Junior Jonathan Thomson was a rock all season as the Outlaws’ only “big” standing at 6-3, constantly battling inside for rebounds, putbacks, steals and strong drives to the basket.

However, Yuma’s trio of senior starters deserve more credit than known for the Outlaws bringing home the big trophy, and getting a banner put up on The Pit’s wall next season. None had any kind of playing role on the program’s last state title team just two years ago in 2022 — a team loaded with seniors and juniors — yet they all found their way into YHS basketball lore.

There was the constant grittiness and toughness of Cesar Gamboa, whose brother Javier won a title as a senior in 2022 and was a freshman on the 2019 championship team.

Gamboa was remarkably consistent throughout the season, averaging around five points and five rebounds per game, along with constantly coming up with steals. His hands always were around the ball on the defensive end, which led to him getting into foul trouble from time to time, but his aggressive tenacity was always a key.

“We always talked about how he’s just a dog,” Sheffield said, “always battling around the rim. I thought he played incredibly well.”

Cristian Duarte is listed at 5-10, but that probably is generous. Yet, he always made his living around the rim, and he made a very good living.

“He has such a great burst in his jump,” Sheffield said.

Duarte averaged more than 13 points per game, and around two steals per game. He stepped it up in the postseason averaging more than 16 points per game, including two games of more than 20 points, nearly all of them on strong drives to hoop, or rising step-back jumpers in the lane.

He came up huge in the overtime semifinal win over Forge Christian on Friday. The Outlaws called an alley-oop pass from Sheffield to him for a key bucket late in the game. Then with the score tied and about headed to a second overtime against the defending state champions, Duarte made an aggressive drive to the basket resulting in a foul call with under 2 seconds left.

“He was so aggressive on that drive, that call had to be made,” Sheffield said.

Duarte made the first free throw for the winning point for a 55-54 lead, and missed the second as time ran out for Forge after the rebound.

Then there is Edwin Munoz. He walked away from the program during a difficult time in his sophomore year. He returned as a junior, but finished last season playing on the C-team. Sheffield said he finally started to blossom, and played his way into a starting role, after eventually committing to the offseason work last summer.

However, the life of a 3-point sniper can be a challenging one. Montes began the season knocking down his shots, but then ran into a rough stretch after the calendar turned to 2024 in which in which it seemed nothing would fall for him.

He started to find his range from deep again when the postseason began, consistently scoring during the Outlaws’ march to the title.

Montes made just one of his first four shots from deep Saturday night against Vanguard. However, a shooter has to shoot, and he made six more from downtown to key the Outlaws’ huge comeback win after falling behind 13-0. Most of his treys involved dribbling to the side of a defender then stepping back for the shot. Consecutive treys pulled Yuma to within 25-20 in the second quarter, another finally pulled Yuma into a 34-34 tie in the third, and his last gave the Outlaws a 51-50 lead with under 4 minutes left.

“He scores 21 points in a championship game and he played C-team last year,” Sheffield said in amazement.

It was the epitome of this unexpected state championship gang of Outlaws.

“The make-up of this team is incredible,” Sheffield said. “It boggles my mind.”