The first step toward the Linn County Mustangs' ultimate dream has been actualized.
The Linn County boys' basketball team toppled La Plata on Friday night, 56-42, in the Class 1 District 12 championship in Purdin. Although Linn County hosted the tournament, the Mustangs were the second seed while La Plata was first, and therefore wore dark uniforms and appeared as the visitor on the scoreboard.
Linn County coach Jason White said that this group of guys is special to him well beyond his son being a key cog in the Mustangs' machine.
"This group of seniors was in eighth grade when I came here, we've put in a ton of time and they've worked hard," White said. "They absolutely love hanging out together, and they came in together tonight. The communication tonight was probably the best I've ever seen it. The boys were ready for this moment, I'll say that.
"We came in with a plan, and our guys did a great job of sticking to it. Our goal was to take away their best shooters and adjust after that. We stayed in attack mode tonight. We hit some shots, and things worked out for us tonight."
Linn County trailed twice on Friday night, once midway through the first quarter and again into the second. La Plata took a 12-10 lead into the second quarter, and scored the first bucket of the period.
From that point onward, the Mustangs asserted themselves perhaps as convincingly as they have all season.
Trailing 14-10 shortly into the second period, Linn County scored 20 of the game's next 22 points to take a 30-16 lead into the halftime break with fans and players alike at a fever pitch.
Junior Michael O'Kane and sophomore Cody Murrell knocked down three-pointers on Linn County's final two possessions of the half.
From that point until the final horn, only one time did La Plata cut the Mustangs' lead to single digits. With 1:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, La Plata forced the game to 49-41 before Linn County knocked down some free throws and clinched a district title with a 7-1 run to ice the game.
"We knew we had to keep the tempo," O'Kane said. "We like to get out and run and play fast, and they like to play it a little slower. We made them overthink some things on offense. Our crowd tonight was incredible, and that helped us out a lot on defense and we used that as fuel. Down the stretch, we finished it out strong, and I'm proud of my guys."
O'Kane finished with a team-high 20 points, and knocked down all three of his three-pointers in the first half. Senior big man Chadley Waltz finished with 17 points and imposed his will on the low block throughout the evening. Murrell finished with nine points, and Kade Ward had five. Seniors Jase White posted three points and Caleb Schreiner rounded out Linn County's scoring with a basket.
Waltz played all 32 minutes, and one game removed from fouling out in the early stages of the fourth quarter against Green City, he was only whistled three times. His inside-out game throughout the night enabled the Mustang offense to get open looks and allow slashers to attack the rim.
"The officials let us play, and I love that," Waltz said. "I can't get in foul trouble there. I had a different mindset tonight, and I was able to help us move the ball and get some open shots. It worked for us. The end of that first half showed how we're built -- when we can get out and run like that, things start clicking."
Linn County improves to 13-7, while La Plata finishes its season 22-6. Tel Wheeler's 13 points was a team-high for the Bulldogs, and Dylan Hemmerling finished with nine, knocking down three three-pointers in the third quarter to give La Plata a glimmer of hope.
The Mustangs play the winner of Saturday's District 11 championship at Tina-Avalon between Meadville and Slater. The sectional game will be played at 6 p.m. on Tuesday at Chillicothe High School.