COLUMN: Despite the odds, the Cinderella Indians are still dancing
The Jackson Indians boys' basketball team did something this past Friday night that the average Southeast Missouri basketball fan would never have even imagined.
After 89 years and a disappointing end to the conference regular season, the Indians defeated the Eureka Wildcats to advance to the state final four.
The last appearance for the Indians came in 1934, as Jackson took home the state championship against Southwest out of Kansas City, a high school that just recently closed its doors in 2016.
Itís nothing short of a Cinderella story if Iím being frank. As a 2021 graduate of Jackson, I know a lot of these guys. Great kids with great attitudes toward the game.
But to think, at the start of this season, that first-year head coach Kory Thoma would take this team all the way to the final four in Springfield? It had never even crossed my mind.
With all the talent that has passed through the program over the past near-century, including 2015 graduate and Yale basketball standout Blake Reynolds and the few playoffs runs that he embarked on under former head coach Darrin Scott, the final four mark seemed unreachable for a while.
At the MSHSAA Class 6A level, winning is no easy job. The narrative of private-versus-public has been running rampant among smaller bootheel schools lately, but no teams know those private schools quite like Jackson and Poplar Bluff.
With the presence of St. Louis basketball powerhouses in the 6A level such as Christian Brothers College Ė who produced current North Carolina standout Caleb Love Ė or Chaminade Ė who produced Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum, who donít really need much introduction Ė the talent pool rarely ever sizes up to the regional draw that those schools produce.
But with the recent district realignments, Jackson escaped a two-loss Kirkwood team in the district final and faced a matchup with fellow public school Eureka, who the Indians had narrowly lost to during the Flyer Invitational a year prior.
Despite the odds being heavily stacked against them, the Indians overcame Lindbergh, Kirkwood and Eureka, some of the strongest public schools out of St. Louis this year, and punched their ticket to Springfield for the first time since the days of the Great Depression.
It comes with a sense of local pride. Facebook posts and school sendoffs are all expected to be flooded with people who donít even have a connection to the team. The Jackson pride runs deep.
It started a season in which Thoma had to look to gain his footing in the SEMO Conference after being dealt the hand of a strong senior class. With some work, however, it turned into three regular-season tournament championship appearances and a final-four berth.
Jackson earned that berth by allowing just 110 points across those three games, with the largest victory coming by four against Eureka in the quarterfinal matchup on Friday.
For the Indiansí next matchup, however, holding their opponent below 40 points wonít come as easily. A matchup against Staley out of northern Kansas City looms on the horizon, with the Falcons sporting a roster with several Division-I prospects.
The star-studded Staley averages 66.5 points per game, and itíll take a brick wall on defense to keep the Falcons from having their way. But, of course, the odds havenít stopped Jackson yet. Theyíll look to upend the 28-2 Falcons at 10 a.m. on Friday at Great Southern Bank Arena in Springfield, Missouri.