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Bobcats make fourth journey to final four
DELTA — Sara Blattel started playing basketball with many of her teammates back in the third grade.
But Blattel, now a senior, said there was nothing back then that convinced her the team could reach the Class 1 state final four when it reached high school.
"We were special," Blattel said, talking more about the players' personalities than their basketball skills in third grade. "We never would have thought that we'd make it to the final four because no one had done that for 20 years when we were in third grade. But when the first team went, we were like wow, maybe we could too."
While it didn't seem possible nine years ago, the Delta girls basketball team will play in the Class 1 state semifinals Thursday at Mizzou Arena in Columbia. The Bobcats will face Meadville, with a 9 a.m. tipoff.
"We knew this was our last year and we've been working for this for a long time," senior Amanda Drew said. "It's always been our dream to go to state."
Winning almost has become commonplace in Delta. The Bobcats have reeled off eight straight district titles, and reached the state final four in 2003 and 2006. Delta finished third both times. But the success doesn't dull the team's excitement as it prepares for its trip to Columbia.
"People think that we take it for granted because we've been there three times before and we've won district for eight years, they think it is just another year for these guys," Drew said. "But it's special for us because it's us this year. We're the starting five. We're not sitting the bench, hoping to come in. We're out there the whole time. It's incredible for us."
Delta coach Randy White is setting a new standard of success in Delta, where 25-win seasons are expected. Delta likes to win district titles in clumps, having won four straight from 1979 to 1982. The players credit their coach for the latest string of championships, which started in 2001.
"We have an excellent coach," Drew said. "He's helped us tremendously over the years. He takes us to all kinds of summer camps. We go watch SEMO games. We're around basketball all the time.
"A lot of it is we live for sports. We're a small town, what else are we going to do? It's either basketball, softball or nothing at all."
White, in his seventh season, deflects the credit to his players.
"I think it's mainly due to the character of the kids," he said. "We've got kids who have great work ethic. They are very dependable kids. They have faith in each other, faith in their team as a whole."
The seeds of success for this season started in the sectional round last year. Delta went 26-0 to start the season, but suffered its lone loss to Scott County Central in sectionals. The Bobcats had beaten Scott County three times during the regular season, but the Braves won the playoff game, ending Delta's quest for a trip to Columbia. That loss served as motivation for this year's team.
"We just learned how to be prepared for every game, come out and be ready to play," Blattel said. "You never know what to expect."
White pointed out that while the Scott County loss was tough to swallow, this year's team didn't dwell on it.
"I think it was a motivating factor, but we've got a little bit of a different group," he said. "Five of the kids on that team graduated. But that's definitely in the back of these kids' minds. That was big getting through the sectional."
Now that the Bobcats have reached the final four, some of the older players can focus on erasing the memory of their first game in Mizzou Arena. Delta lost to Leeton 48-21 in the semifinals in 2006.
"I think this time we will be ready," said junior Jodi Menz, who started the Leeton game. "Last time, it was just kind of we were just excited to be up there. This time we're going to actually play up to our ability."
Once the Bobcats settled in during their 2006 run, they were fine, beating Silex 42-37 for third place in the state. The players hope that their experience in the arena will help them avoid a clunker like last time.
"It's hard to stay down there and concentrate with all the yelling," senior Sarah Keys said. "You're trying to listen to the coach and see what he's saying. You have to try to stay focused, play as a team and everything will be OK.
"I think we just all need to stay focused and have faith in each other. If we play to our abilities, we'll be fine."
And while the team focuses on the semifinals, a few of the seniors have allowed themselves to consider the possibility of going 2-0 in Columbia and bringing home Delta's first state championship.
"It would mean so much," Blattel said. "All the work we've done over the years and how hard we've worked and how hard coach White has worked, it would be awesome."
Added Drew: "It would be pretty cool. I don't know really how to describe it, but I would be very happy."