Crofton’s boys have a good road map to Lincoln for their first state tournament appearance in 85 years.
They can use the itinerary for the Warriors’ girls team, which last weekend won a state title for the fifth time in nine seasons.
“It’s nice to see success come the boys’ way, too,” school Athletic Director Ann Kramer said.
The Warrior boys won a district title for the first time, beating Hartington Cedar Catholic 51-50 to qualify with an 11-13 record. They meet No. 1 Sutton (25-1) at 9 a.m. Thursday in a first-round Class C-2 game at Lincoln High.
Crofton’s game with Sutton will be its first in the state tournament since 1928, the last year that teams simply could sign up. The Warriors also were in the 1924 field.
Crofton is one of three schools in Class C-2 to qualify for state in boys and girls basketball. Overall, there are 18 schools that have their boys teams following their girls teams to Lincoln.
It might not have been the season Crofton would have been expected to break through. The school was making its debut in the strong Mid-State Conference, which is sending four boys teams to state, and high school principal Todd Strom was the Warriors’ new coach.
“I was stepping into a program that had success,” said Strom, who hadn’t coached since his last team at Pierce was Class C-1 runner-up in 2000. “The nucleus from last year was back and this summer we set a goal to make the state tournament.”
A Mid-State Conference schedule, loaded with Class C-1 teams, was a step up for the Warriors from their many years in the Northeast Nebraska Conference (which will fold at the end of the school year). A seven-year string of winning seasons will end unless they are state champions.
“The Mid-State, we knew, would be very competitive. It has talented athletes and very hard-working, intelligent coaches,” Strom said. “We were going to be tested and suffer a few losses.
“It’s a tribute to the boys’ character that they kept working. They experienced enough wins between losses to keep their hunger up and their goals were still attainable.”
In the past month, he said, the Warriors accepted some roles and embraced a team philosophy “to get clicking offensively” while maintaining their intensity and solid defense.
The first payoff was in the final game of the regular season, a 60-56 win at Boone Central/Newman Grove, which is now the No. 2 team in the Class C-1 ratings. In subdistricts, the Warriors beat Boyd County 32-26 and Creighton 46-38 to get to Cedar Catholic, which beat them 51-35 in December.
The district final at Norfolk High School came down to the final seconds. After Cedar Catholic took a 50-49 lead, 6-foot-1 sophomore Brock Mueller was fouled on an inbounds play and he made two free throws with 4 seconds left. He and Ben Hegge each scored 18 points in the win.
“We shot better than we had for a while,” Strom said. “We backed it up with our defense. We figured every loose ball and rebound would count and it did.”
Mueller leads the Warriors with averages of 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds. Hegge and Dakota Miller are a pair of 6-4 seniors.
Justin Janssen is the team’s best perimeter defender, the coach said, and junior point guard Evan Woockman guards the opponent’s best player.
Top bench players are Eric Kleinschmidt and Tyler Koch.
Strom said he got back into coaching, while remaining an administrator, because he missed it. The relationships built with players “can’t be emulated in any other profession.”
“I never played in state as a high school athlete (at Bloomfield),” he said. “I’ve gotten to coach in several state tournaments and it’s a thrill I hope I can continue to pass on to teams I coach.
“Finally, we get to do that here in Crofton.”
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