Minutes after leading the Madison Memorial boys basketball team to the 2009 state championship last March, coach Steve Collins was already thinking about 2010.
"We talked about it in the locker room just now," he told me on his way to the bus. "I've learned that with kids, you've got to plant the seed early."
What Collins planted apparently took root. He'll be directing the Spartans in their seventh straight state tournament appearance on Thursday afternoon, March 18, tipping off against Neenah at around 3. But despite having three Division I college prospects in the starting lineup, Memorial's trip to state this year may have been the most challenging of the seven.
The Spartans have lost four times this season, the most for a Memorial team since 2003. And whereas last season's team blew out opponents, winning conference games by an average of 24 points, this year's team is scoring less and giving up more points on defense, winning by an average of 13 points.
Last Saturday, the Spartans needed all the good fortune they could summon to outlast the Middleton Cardinals, 56-54, after beating the team by 42 points just a month earlier. In the closing seconds of the game, Middleton shooters twice got free for wide-open three-pointers that just rattled out. But Collins thinks the narrow victory in this must-win game helped prepare his team, mentally, for the weekend ahead.
"It's maybe not so much the X's and O's as it is just having been in those battles," he reflects. "You like to go to battle with guys who have been there."