After winning only six games last year, the Notre Dame boys basketball team entered its first season under coach Paul Hale with little fanfare.
When a serious knee injury took down Bryce Willen -- Notre Dame's top returning player -- before the season started, expectations for the Bulldogs sunk even lower. But with the comeback of Willen and a renewed confidence, Notre Dame is one game away from making its first trip to the state final four since 1987.
"Everyone wants it. It's so close," Willen said of a state berth.
Notre Dame (13-16) will face Salem (24-4) at 8:15 tonight in a Class 4 quarterfinal at the Farmington Civic Center.
Playing a brutal schedule down the stretch -- including games against Poplar Bluff, Caruthersville, Central and Kelly -- the Bulldogs lost their final six games of the season. Willen saw limited minutes in a few of those final six games, but once he was healthy enough to start, Notre Dame took off.
Hale said the addition of Willen simply gave the Bulldogs the spark they needed.
"I think it helped that every one of them played with him the last two or three years; they know what he can do," Hale said. "If he wasn't such a good kid, I don't think it would have as much an impact. They really respect him."
Notre Dame squeezed its way through the Class 4 District 1 tournament at Perryville, then on Wednesday made a statement with a 78-51 pounding of Festus, which came into the game ranked No. 7 in the state and sporting a 23-5 record.
The Bulldogs now turn their attention to Salem, ranked No. 5 in Class 4. The Tigers defeated Lutheran South 74-64 in the sectional round.
Salem returns four starters from a team which finished 20-7 last season but did not win its district. The Tigers are similar in size to Notre Dame with 6-foot-5 Garrett Sheppard patrolling the post.
"I think they've been ranked high all year, and they had a good team last year," Hale said.
Willen has led the charge for the Bulldogs during their current run, averaging 18 points a game in the four victories. Notre Dame has been able to get steady contributions from its guard rotation of Frankie Ellis, John Eric Klein, Kirk Boeller and Mark Unterreiner as well as solid play from Jeremy Brinkmeyer and Alex Ressel.
"Everybody's doing their part," Hale said. "People that play good defense are playing good defense, people that score are scoring."