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Column: Leopold boys basketball team has sights set on first district titlePosted Wednesday, February 6, 2013, at 2:29 AM
The seniors on the Leopold boys basketball team played their final game on their small home floor, tucked inside their undersized gym Tuesday night.
"Playing in a blueberry? A blueberry factory? Kind of like 50 shades of blue?," joked Leopold senior Brandon Jansen when I asked him what is was like to play in the gym.
It's true that the gym features multiple shades of blue, though not as many as it used to. It's also true that it's a hard place for opponents to play and a hard place to walk away from when you're a Wildcat.
"It was really emotional," said senior and leading scorer Kyle Stroder, who had to wipe away tears more than once during the course of the night. "You put all that work and effort into it, and it's just hard to watch it go, so it was really emotional.
"I love playing here. All the fans here -- I think they're the best fans around."
There were few empty seats and plenty of people standing along the court's edges as Leopold cruised to a routine 75-31 victory over Puxico.
No joke. That kind of win has been the routine for Leopold this season.
The Wildcats won their 20th game of the season Tuesday night. They've won those games by an average of almost 37 points while being beaten just twice.
Both losses came at the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament where they lost to Notre Dame by five points on Day 2 before delivering their most disappointing performance of the season a day later in a 14-point loss to Advance, a team they later beat by 11 on its home floor.
Twenty-win seasons used to be a big deal around Leopold, which doesn't have much basketball history to brag about.
But things have changed in the past few years. With accomplishments like being the first team to ever have back-to-back 20-wins season behind them -- this year actually marks five in a row -- the players have their sites set on more ambitious firsts.
"We still got our 20-win season, which is pretty good, but I feel like this year more people were after us than we were after them," Jansen said. "It's a different setting when you play a game."
There are a lot of banners hanging on the Leopold gym's blue walls.
There are seven noting the storied volleyball program's trips to the final four. Another one that lists all 23 years the volleyball team has won a district title. There's one for the 26 volleyball conference titles, one for the 12 basketball conference titles, one for the four conference and one district baseball championship and even one for the spring softball team's one conference win.
That's it. There's no banner for basketball district titles because no Leopold basketball team has ever won a district championship.
But this year's team, which moved up to the No. 2 spot in the latest state poll, will be the favorite to win one this year even with four-time defending state champion Scott County Central serving as tournament host.
"The first goal is to win the first district title here," Stroder said. "Then however far we can get after that. We don't set limits for ourselves. We know we just can't make any excuses this year."
No excuses. Not even one about how the team's second-leading scorer might not play again this season.
Senior Joe Elrink, who was averaging 13.9 points and 5.3 rebounds, broke a bone in his wrist during a Jan. 22 win against Chaffee and has been told he'll need eight weeks to heal.
The Wildcats eeked out a two-point win at Oran in their first game without Elfrink and have settled back into their routine since, routing Zalma, Meadow Heights and Puxico.
Leopold has two games on the road next week before the team officially will be able start work on adding a new banner to the gym.
Even Jansen couldn't joke about what that would mean to him.
"It would be the biggest honor anybody could have, just to be the first in something that the school's never had before," he said. "It'd definitely be different."
Stroder had a similar sentiment.
"That would mean a lot. That'd mean everything to me, and I know that would mean everything to this team. We'd be remembered in history here forever."
I asked Stroder, a four-year varsity starter with a mature perspective, if he thought young boys at Leopold might look up to the example he and his teammates have set.
"I try to set a good example for them, but I hope they look up to me and say they want to be better than me someday," he said. "I don't want them to settle. I just hope that they want the same thing and they keep representing Leopold well."
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Rachel Crader is the editor of semoball.com. She graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in May of 2009 before spending the summer covering the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Highlights from Rachel's days in college include having a class down the hall from Chase Daniel and having NCAA wrestling champion Ben Askren hold the door open for her at Brady Commons, Mizzou's student center. She spent time covering Mizzou basketball, softball and baseball while working for the Columbia Missourian and is excited to return home to Southeast Missouri to cover local sports for semoball.com.
Rachel has covered three Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournaments for the Southeast Missourian and semoball.com, and she'll see you courtside again this year.
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