For a third-straight March, the Meadville High School basketball Eagles rolled east on U.S. Highway 36 to Macon Saturday, then turned north on U.S. Highway 63 (to Kirksville) to play a Class 1 state tournament game.
Beginning next December, it’s a route they’ll travel annually for the foreseeable future when they have regular-season road games against several schools as part of their return to the Tri-County Conference after a 31⁄2-decades absence.
However, thanks to what they did on the court Saturday, they’ll make another jaunt east to Macon this week, only this time having finally earned the right to have their bus driver turn south, not north, on Highway 63 because their destination won’t be Kirksville – it will be Columbia and the 2013 MSHSAA Basketball Championships semifinals and finals.
After four-straight district championships from 2009-12 had been followed by either sectional (three times) or quarterfinal (once) losses in state play, the once-beaten, Darren Smith-coached MHS Eagles (29-1) finally enhanced their legacy of success to include the program’s first appearance in the state semifinals and finals by avenging last year’s sectional-round loss to Marion County with a 42-35 victory over the Mustangs Saturday afternoon in Truman State University’s Pershing Arena.
“Several (past Eagles) were here today,” coach Smith told the C-T as he completed a sequence of post-game interviews following the long-sought triumph, “and I even had them come in and talk to the kids before the game, just to reiterate to (the current players) that they can do it and to finish the legacy.
“Those kids didn’t get to finish the legacy, they didn’t get to Columbia, so this was an opportunity for (this year’s players) to finish the legacy for those older guys.”
Although advancing to play at the annual final site of high school hoops in the state – University of Missouri’s Hearnes Center and Mizzou Arena this week – is the last step of the geographic legacy, once there, there will be another legacy to try to further burnish.
The remarkable run of success to which coach Smith has guided the MHS boys’ program the past five years would be even-further enhanced by MHS’ first-ever appearance in a state-title game and immortalized with a state crown.
Accomplishing the former will require defeating the Stanberry Bulldogs (22-7) in a Thursday early-evening game ticketed to tip off at about 5 p.m. That game will be played in the Hearnes Center following the other Class 1 boys’ semifinal between Eminence and Drexel.
Eminence (25-5) on Saturday ended Scott County Central’s run of four-straight Class 1 crowns, but it probably will be an underdog to Drexel (29-1), which has lost only once this year after dropping last year’s title game to Scott County Central by seven.
Page 2 of 4 - While coach Smith and a few of his players had been down the state tournament sectional or quarterfinal road before, many of the Eagles’ contributors came into Saturday’s crucible with less or no emotional or psychological baggage from prior losses in state play.
“This bunch of kids, I’ve thought all season, they’ve been extremely loose,” coach Smith disclosed. “They get along real well together. They hang out together. They do a great job of including everyone. It’s a testament to how good of kids they are.
“I’m not sure that they were as nervous as I was. I thought they played with composure and that’s half the battle.”
Indeed, Meadville’s boys did not have any stretch in Saturday’s victory over Marion County in which they showed any sign of the surroundings, circumstances, or stakes throwing them off stride.
While not having anything near a flaws-free game, they stayed within their offensive and defensive game plans and any in-progress adjustments their coach deemed necessary to the degree that they had an upper hand most of the way.
In fact, after five times in the first period swapping the lead with the Mustangs, whose 2011-12 club had topped Meadville’s 54-47 on the same floor in the sectional (first) round of state play, the Eagles in fact were so poise and focused that, when they ended what could have been a crippling 61⁄2-minutes scoring drought starting the second stanza, they actually reclaimed the lead for keeps when they ended the dry spell on T.J. Schmitz’s 3-pointer a mere 1:23 ahead of halftime.
They then reinforced their steadiness in different ways several times in the second half.
After using a 6-0 spurt in the first half of the third period to expand their 15-11 halftime lead to 21-13, the Eagles coolly and efficiently blunted a building Marion County surge after that margin twice had been cut in half with quick follow-up buckets of their own.
Finally, in the final frame, after seeing the Mustangs from the Philadelphia and Emerson areas finally make it a 1-possession game at 36-33 with still more tha four minutes remaining, Meadville’s defensive soundness was such that its opponent never did reach that 36-points plateau, the Eagles closing on a modest 6-2 push.
When Derek Smith, the coach’s son, made a free throw with 18 seconds remaining that took the lead up to the final 7-points margin, the celebration by the big contingent of MHS fans began to bubble over.
While Meadville led last and most, its foe scored first. Marion County’s Kason Spratt netted two free throws 20 seconds into the action after a foul was called on De. Smith. The foul ruling took on additional import not much later.
Page 3 of 4 - On their first offensive foray, the Eagles did just what their coach wanted against a diminutive MCHS club that had no starter taller than 5’11”. De. Smith fed the ball to 6’3” junior Kolton Friesner at the low post and, from left of the lane, he spun easily to the basket and laid it in, tying the game 2-2 after 32 seconds.
Spratt scored on a give-and-go in transition a minute later to restore the Mustangs’ lead, but a minute after that De. Smith found the range from 10 feet on the right side while being fouled. Completing the three-point play at the 5:25 mark of the opening segment, he gave the Eagles their first lead of the game.
Only six seconds later, a tossup official’s call went against Meadville when senior De. Smith was called for a blocking foul – his second of the game in baredly 21⁄2 minutes – when a bullrushing Spratt plowed into him. The call could have severely damaged Meadville, but instead – just as with two player-control fouls called on Eagles low-post players Friesner and Blake Burkholder in the first 8:20 of the game – only forced it to find other ways to get the job done.
“It really took him out of his game in the first half,” coach Smith said of his son’s having to play far more cautiously with the two fouls.
“His whole game is predicated on his penetration. That sets up his 3-point (shot opportunities) and sets up his teammates. His getting those two quick ones really changed the complexion of what we were trying to do.”
Marion County took back the lead at 6-5, but Logan Newlin’s shot in the paint off Cade Shiflett’s pass with just over two minutes remaining in the quarter was a harbinger of important good things for MHS.
Just after the clock moved under a minute remaining, top Mustang Clay Pollard made his first offensive contribution with a weak-side putback, but Shiflett was left open in the left corner and converted Burkholder’s pass into a trey with 20 ticks left to put Meadville in front 10-8 after one.
When the second period began with the second low-post offensive foul call against the Eagles, their coach decided not to risk trying to continue to pound the ball inside and try to overpower the shorter Mustangs. The result was a quarter deprived of much productivity as the teams combined to have only three scoring plays and eight total points.
“Early on, we were getting just what we wanted (on offense). We were getting Kolton inside, open,” coach Smith reflected, “and they called a couple of charges on us and kind of made us refocus, because if we couldn’t do what we were trying to do – we’re not a great big, physical team anyhow – and they weren’t going to let us what we were trying to do, I thought we might be in trouble.
Page 4 of 4 - “I thought we were going to have to switch gears to shooting more 3s – and they really weren’t falling. I think that’s why is was so ‘muddy’ in the first half.”