Senior Denali Hughes, right, and junior Kaya Evans (23) have helped the Vista PEAK girls basketball team open the season 9-0. The Bison entered winter break as the only other undefeated team in 5A and held the No. 1 spot in CHSAA’s RPI standings. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel)

While their coach plays the Grinch, the Vista PEAK girls basketball team entered winter break with visions of the Denver Coliseum dancing in their heads.

For a still-growing program that is in its first season in Class 5A and just eighth season at the varsity level, that’s heady stuff.

Yet the under-the-radar Bison — the only other undefeated team in 5A besides splashy Regis Jesuit — is off to the kind of start where playing in the venue of their dreams doesn’t seem so far-fetched afterall.

“Even though we haven’t lost, I’m still going to be a Grinch because we want to get better,” Vista PEAK coach Howard Payne said.

“If we want to compete with the upper echelon teams like Grandview and Regis, we’ve got to get better…When we run suicides in practice, I say ‘Hey, you want to go to the Coliseum? Then this is Suicide No. 6. The teams that are going to get there are running more than this. If you want to be great, this is what it takes.'”

So far, Vista PEAK has played like a team hungry to get better and has posted nine victories with double-digit wins in eight of them.

The Bison hold the No. 1 spot in CHSAA’s RPI rankings going into winter break and stand as the only other 5A team to complete the first portion of the season undefeated along with 7-0 Regis Jesuit.

Vista PEAK opened the season with two non-league wins, won the Skyline Falcon Challenge championship and then went into winter break with a feel-good 57-37 victory over Fruita Monument, last season’s No. 1 seed in the 5A state tournament that came into the game with a solid 7-3 record.

The secret to success for Vista PEAK is maturity, which was a bit lacking during last season’s 17-7 season that ended in the first round of the 4A state tournament in a painful two-point home loss to Cheyenne Mountain.

It starts with their acknowledged leader, senior Denali Hughes.

Statistically, Hughes averages a 5A-best 24.7 points per game — nearly a full-point better than Stanford-bound Regis Jesuit star Fran Belibi at this point — and that is three points better than her final average last season, but it’s something less tangible that Hughes points out as the biggest difference in her game.

“I feel like I definitely have improved my attitude and my leadership,” Hughes said. “I was a hothead before, but now I’m focused more on trying to contain myself, focus on my team and bringing my teammates up instead of yelling at them.

“It feels like they are responding better and keeping positive, which helps them keep shooting with confidence.”

Junior Kaya Evans has played with Hughes for about six years and has noticed the change.

“Denali was always the type to have an attitude, but this year she’s grown a lot,” said Evans, the team’s second-leading scorer at 11.7 points per game.

“She’s does a lot more to chill out and calm everyone down,” she added. “She doesn’t blame everyone now, she’s trying to build everyone up.”

The growth doesn’t stop there.

Evans feels she has improved her ability contribute intensity and play outstanding defense (to compliment an outside shot that remains a definite strength).

Hughes’ younger sister, Seairra — a junior — also feels better equipped for this season and averages a team-best 11.3 rebounds per game to go with 9.8 points per contest.

“Last year at the end of the season, that was not it,” she said. “I was messing up right and left and I had an attitude. It was terrible. Now, I’m really determined to keep my head and really improve my game.”

With all the individual improvement added to chemistry that comes from the return of the entire roster from last season save guard Brooklyn Grieve, while freshman Mikenzie Jones — sister of junior rebounding standout Mikayla Jones — has helped improve the team’s depth.

Vista PEAK seems ready to take the next step as a program this season.

The Bison now turn their attention to trying to repeat as EMAC champions and setting themselves up for a chance to achieve that goal of making it to the Denver Coliseum.

“It’s our third year playing with each other and with Denali leaving, it feels like the year that we have to show everybody what we can do and play as hard as we can,” Evans said.

Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Sentinel Prep Sports

2018-19 CLASS 5A GIRLS BASKETBALL RPI (through Dec. 22)

Top 10 teams (win-loss record, RPI): 1. VISTA PEAK PREP (9-0), 0.727; 2. Highlands Ranch (9-1), 0.715; 3. Cherry Creek (5-2), 0.708; 4. REGIS JESUIT (7-0), 0.702; 5. Fossil Ridge (7-1), 0.682; 6. GRANDVIEW (6-3), 0.664; 7. Valor Christian (8-2), 0.662; 8. Legend (8-1), 0.652; 9. Monarch (8-1), 0.650; 10. Horizon (8-2), 0.644; Other Aurora teams: 13. Rangeview (7-2), 0.623; 18. Cherokee Trail (5-3), 0.606; 36. Eaglecrest (4-5), 0.508; 49. Overland (3-3), 0.467; 55. Aurora Central (4-6), 0.442; 62. Smoky Hill (2-7), 0.340; 63. Gateway (1-8), 0.336; 64. Hinkley (1-9), 0.305