Papillion-La Vista South, this year’s Cinderella team at state, has a never-say-die attitude.
The Titans kept getting back up, no matter how hard they got knocked down.
“We’re the team that had a five-game losing streak going into districts and somehow turned it around,” coach Joel Hueser said.
Papio South (9-15) showed its resiliency, pulling out of that skid (all five games were against teams that had been ranked during the season) just in time to win two straight for the district title, claiming the school’s first trip to the Class A boys basketball state tournament.
Rugged defense and its best rebounding of the year were the keys in beating North Platte, which got a wild card into state, and Omaha Bryan in districts.
The prize for that? A first-round matchup against No. 1 Omaha Central (23-4) at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Devaney Center in Lincoln.
“We’re very encouraged by these kids and what they’ve managed to grind out,” Hueser said. “They have a great opportunity to play one of the biggest games in front of the biggest crowds in Lincoln.”
Stopping one of the best high school teams ever in Nebraska is a challenge for anybody, the coach said. It’s a matchup that the Titans are embracing.
To Hueser, the trip to state is a payoff not just for this team, but for all the athletes, assistants and staff the past 10 years who laid the foundation.
Papio South teams have been striving and straining to be in this spot for a while, he said.
“We like to say, ‘stay the course, stay the course,’” Hueser said. “The guys just did a great job of continuing to work hard all the way down the stretch. They put together our two best games when we needed them the most.”
The Titans don’t have much height, with two players who are 6-foot-4. Their strength is their ability to share the ball and work together.
Michael Herrmann, a 6-4 junior forward, is the team’s leading scorer (14.0) and averages 5.3 rebounds a game. Senior forward Tyler Johnson, also 6-4, averages 5.7 points and 5.4 rebounds.
Other starters are senior guard John Swift (6.4 points), sophomore guard Aaron Rothermund (8.1) and senior point guard Brent Kirsch, averaging 6.2 points with 85 assists.
Kirsch’s ability to handle opponents’ pressure has been huge for his team.
“He is really the heart and soul in terms of leadership,” Hueser said. “He’s done a great job, especially in the second half of the season, in handling the ball for us.”
The matchup with the Eagles was no surprise. That’s what happens when you put together that kind of run down the stretch, Hueser said.
He’s just happy the Titans enter the game playing their best ball of the season.
Their game plan is not to get caught up in the end results. They want to play each possession to its fullest. They’re setting goals for every quarter. They want to show the toughness that’s developed in the grind that is the Metro Conference.
“I think it can be a little intimidating or overwhelming when you are trying to pull off an upset of this magnitude,” Hueser said.
No matter what happens, he knows his players will persevere, just like they have all season.
“Losing is tough. When you invest like we do, and really put your heart into the matter, losing can wear on you,” he said. “To have the fight and determination to keep getting back up, it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a rewarding thing that we get this opportunity.”
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