The Road There
That's all that separated the Laurens-Marathon boys from reaching that state tournament a year ago when they fell to the eventual Class 1A runner-up, George-Little Rock.
It would be safe to assume that got underneath their skin a little bit.
"I don't know if a day went by after that game that it didn't cross our minds," said Laurens-Marathon's leading scorer and rebounder Ryan Stumbo. "We're coming back for more. That game definitely played a huge role in keeping us focused this year."
"We led most of the fourth quarter of that game, and it definitely hurt not to advance," said Charger head coach Matt Winter. "We played about 25 games this summer, the kids were in the weight room, they were working on their games...it was a huge motivational tool."
The Chargers (21-2) started the 2008-2009 season strongly, winning their first four games by an average of 25 points. Then came their first challenge.
Following the long winter break that saw basketball basically put on hold for weeks on end, undefeated Laurens-Marathon met undefeated Sioux Central with the 2A Rebels grabbing a 41-34 decision on their home court.
"It's always a tough game, the first game back," said Winter. "It certainly wasn't one of our better efforts. We just kinda took a step back, reevaluated what we needed to do and moved forward. You never wanted to lose, but it can be useful at times. We put together a nice string of games after that."
The loss lit a fire under Laurens-Marathon, who wouldn't lose a game over the next five weeks as they reeled off 13 straight, including a comfortable 56-43 decision over Sioux Central en route to a Northwest Conference championship.
The Chargers' next loss wouldn't come until the final game of the regular season when they were bested by East Sac, a district finalist in Class 2A, 59-53.
As it did previously, the loss inspired the Chargers to turn up their level play as they breezed through regionals and substate relatively unscathed. Only Galva-Holstein was able to keep the final deficit under 15 points as L-M reeled off double-digit victories in their three other contests, clinching just the third ever state tournament berth in school history.
"We played extremely well all through districts," said Winter. "There's a lot of great teams in the area. We've had a lot of competitive games throughout the year. It will definitely help us out down at state."
"We have a lot of respect for the conference and competition we went up against in the regular season," said Stumbo. "It was definitely good for us."
The Road Ahead
First round opponent Notre Dame, Burlington (23-3) was bounced in the first round of last years' state tournament, falling to the same George-Little Rock squad the kept the Chargers out of the big dance. They too will be looking to extend their post-season run this time around.
Night-in and night-out, Laurens-Marathon's experienced, heady play was a decisive advantage as a core of eight seniors logged the majority of the minutes this season.
The Nikes are one of the few teams in th is year's tournament that can rival the Chargers in that department.
Their starting five and first three off the bench are all upperclassmen (five seniors, three juniors), and they all logged minutes in last years' tournament.
After those two items, the similarities are harder to come by.
The Nikes like to jump on opponents early as their up-tempo style saw them produce Class 1A's fifth most productive offense at 66.7 points per game. Laurens-Marathon is capable of taking part in the running game, but they thrive in the half court set and have consistently put their opponents away in the the second half of games.
The Nikes live and die on the three ball, hoisting more treys than any other school in Class 1A. On the season they've hit 185-485 (38%) from deep, but in their three losses, they've netted just 8-48 (17%) from long range.
"They're not overly big, but they're very skilled," said Winter. "They've got solid ball handling and shooting in every position. They're a lot like us in that aspect. It's really tough to key on just one guy, since there's not one extremely above the rest. They're very balanced...it's going to be a very good game and very fun game for the fans to watch."
Where as Notre Dame thrives on creating extra possessions, the Chargers have succeeded in making the most of every possession they get.
Their 41.2% from three ranks second best in 1A and their 49.6% field goal rate ranks fifth-best. They've turned the ball over just 171 times compared to 279 by the Nikes. In fact, the Chargers far and away lead the 1A tournament field in regards to fewest turnovers.
"They're an extremely smart bunch," said Winter of his squad. "They're very coachable, and they have a chemistry with each other on the court you can't really teach. They just have it, they know where the others are going to be. It's a very enjoyable brand of basketball. They enjoy the good pass as much as a good shot. It definitely makes my job a lot easier when kids are as welling to share the ball as much as they do."
"Growing up and always playing together has definitely helped our chemistry on the floor," said Stumbo. "Knowing each others' games so well and to be able to bond on the floor is one of the main reasons that we've been able to do as well as we have."
In a field that contains five of the top ten teams in the class, there are no Cinderellas in the field. All eight teams are talented and capable enough of making noise next week.
The L-M-Notre Dame winner will square off with either Adair-Casey, top-seeded and undefeated, or Cedar Falls NUH, the defending 1A champs who return eight players who saw action in last year's tourney.
It gets no easier in the bottom half of the bracket where no squad has lost more than three games on the year.
Third-seeded Rock Valley lurks as the likely finalist out of that half of the bracket. The Rockets have lost twice on the year, falling to a pair of the top teams in 3A, #1 Bishop Heelan (21-2) and #4 MOC-Floyd Valley (21-2).
"Anyone you play down there is going to be tough," said Winter. "There's no one that snuck in. You look at all the teams records and the competition they've faced ...they're some of the eight best in the state. That's how it should be."
"We're gonna have to come ready to play ," said Stumbo. "We've been taking it one game at a time for this entire tournament, but now it's just that much more important. You've got to be at your best and ready for every single game, no matter what."
With just four days left until their 12:30PM tip-off against the Nikes, it's safe to say the Laurens-Marathon boys' aren't just sitting around patting themselves on the back.
"We're definitely happy about it," said Stumbo. "But we're definitely still focused ... still looking to do some good things down at state, still looking for more."
"We finally made it to state, and it's really gratifying for all the kids," said Winter. "We're very happy we got there, but we're not just happy to be there," said Winter. "We want to go down there and make as much noise as we can. We'll compete, play hard, and let the chips fall where they may."