Usually, it’s nothing to write home about. A high school basketball tournament in the dead of winter? With the postseason still weeks away? Most might shrug their shoulders.
And yet Jacob Wade and the Strafford Indians had every right to walk out of Rogersville High School with a collective bounce in their step.
This was back in late January, after the Indians nearly toppled 6-foot-8 recruit Juwan Morgan and Class 5 Waynesville; but scored two other wins, including a double-overtime victory against Glendale, also a Class 5 school.
Uh-huh. This is how you make noise as a Class 3 team. Get people’s attention. Even your own.
“After the Blue and Gold, we were like, ‘No more losses,'” Wade recalled. “But after the Rogersville Tournament, it opened our eyes and we were like, ‘Let’s do this. It’s go time.'”
Well, look at Stafford now. The curtain rises today on the state basketball final four in Columbia, and the Indians have raged their way to a Class 3 semifinal.
In fact, rage probably is the best way to describe Stafford (26-4), which is matched opposite Cardinal Ritter (24-5) in a 1:40 p.m. tipoff today at the Hearnes Center.
It’s been a season of one test after another for the Indians, who lined the schedule against other Class 5 teams in Nixa and McCluer North — one an overtime loss, the other a 25-point loss — and beat a pair of Class 4 teams in Bolivar and Marshfield.
But for weeks they’ve hung their collective hat on that Waynesville game. In fact, the Indians led at halftime.
More on that in a second. Overall, just know that the Indians’ story is of a team that’s mentally tough and has the clutch wins to prove it.
This for a team that’s been together for years.
“They don’t pout as much,” said Strafford coach Mike Wilson, now in his 24th season as a head coach, seventh at Strafford. “In the past when I got on them in practice, they’d have a tendency to shut down and not work hard. This year, I haven’t had that problem.
“They have been working their hind ends off.”
Wade, the Evangel University-bound quarterback who anchors the inside, moved into the district in the sixth grade. Grant Boswell, Brady Collier, Kyle Foley, Dallas Hester and Dalton Taylor — they now carpet-bomb from 3-point range — have been teammates since grade school.
Last spring, they made a pact — push the season to mid-March and into Columbia. That conversation came as they were playing catch on the baseball field while other team’s seasons were still playing on. Stafford, you see, had lost in the quarterfinals.
Naturally, that conversation resurfaced before November practices, but it kicked into gear in late January.
Thank their play against Waynesville, whom the Indians played tightly all the way through. It was sort of the breakthrough for a team that, after last season, graduated four seniors, including key scorer Blake Alexander.
An unimportant, late-January tournament it was not.
“We’re not going to face a team as athletic as Waynesville, and we feel like we can compete with anybody right now,” Foley said, and then later added, “We just went in to try to prove a point.”
From there, the Indians conquered the Mid-Lakes Conference, which a couple of weeks ago could brag about six members playing for district championships.
Along the way, Strafford rallied from 13 points down in the third quarter to beat Marshfield when the Jays had just welcomed back dangerous scorer Blayne Armstrong.
However, all of those games were only a warm-up act.
In the postseason, the Indians also came from behind to beat Fair Grove in the district championship and clipped Hartville in the quarterfinals — despite trailing by five points with two minutes left.
“We went three years ago to the final four and ended up playing Hogan Prep,” said Wilson, who previously coached at Sparta and Hartville. “We didn’t feel like we’d seen anybody like that all year. … So we tried to make our schedule better.”
Indeed, 2011 was the first final four appearance in Strafford’s history. And what a rich history it has been.
Just look at the far wall in the gym, an ode to glory of years past: 1954 G.C.L Champions and again in ’59 and ’70; 1990 Mid-Lakes champions; the 2011 Class 3 state runnerup and sprinkled in are district and sectional titles and so forth.
The one honor missing, however, is a state championship.
Perhaps that changes this weekend.
Wilson’s got two point guards now in Hester and Collier, plus Wade anchoring the inside.
Collier returned the past 15 games after he was forced to nurse a badly sprained ankle, suffered early during football season. The bones separated within the ankle, necessitating surgery, Wilson said.
Collier now averages 10 points a game after scoring all of 10 points in his first five games back. He now joins Foley (16 ppg), Wade (14 ppg) and Boswell (13 ppg) in averaging double figures.
Wade has been the team’s unquestioned leader, willing to get vocal in the locker room and on the floor. Taylor’s been the best defender.
In other words, Strafford has the pieces.
“We knew for a long time that this year really could be the year to do something,” Wade said. “We had the team last year but lost in the quarterfinals. But we talked about it some over the summer that, ‘If we play well, we could really make a run at this.’
“We have. But we have to take advantage of it.”