The making of a state-qualifying team did not happen by accident. The Ottawa High School boys basketball team seniors have been playing basketball together all their lives.
Their ultimate goal was to play in Salina at the state tournament like teams before them. Their journey was full of potholes, but the group trudged through the disappointments.
After last year’s sub-state loss to Chanute, the seniors had a final chance. They were determined not to let it slip through their fingers. The work toward that goal began immediately a year ago.
“We worked so hard in the offseason and throughout the season,” Ottawa senior guard Cade Gollier said. “We decided last year, we had a tough loss (in sub-state) and we don’t want this feeling again. We are going to do everything in our power to make sure this does not happen again. We saw people before us make it to state. We want this. We are going to do everything we can to make this happen.”
The Cyclones made it happen. Ottawa used grit and tenacity to capture a sub-state championship. Ottawa turned back Independence, 48-42, Saturday in the championship game on its home floor.
Ottawa (16-6) garnered the fifth seed in the 4A State Tournament and plays 4:45 p.m. Thursday in Salina against No. 4 Augusta (18-4) in the first round. It is Ottawa’s first state trip in five seasons.
Gollier said the feeling of going to state is “indescribable.”
“We wanted to get there so bad,” he said. “We knew this was our last chance. These are my best friends. We grew up playing basketball together. We dreamed about this. That is why it is so much sweeter because we had this goal in mind since we were kids. To see it finally happen, it means so much.”
Ottawa coach Cliff McCullough said this is a reward for everything this group went through to get here.
“They deserve it,” he said. “They earned it. We thought this could be a group that could potentially do it.”
McCullough said there is no reason why Ottawa can’t make something special happen at the state tournament.
“Why not us,” he said. “We are going to go out and try to make some noise.”
Ottawa started the season slow, playing a bunch of talented teams, including two games against defending state champ Piper. Ottawa stood at 5-5 at the mid-point of the season.
The Cyclones closed the season by winning nine of their final 10 regular-season games to earn a home berth in sub-state, which was big for the Cyclones. Ottawa won all nine home games during the regular season.
“The other thing that made a huge difference in these two (sub-state) games was the crowd and student section,” McCullough said. “Our guys have been talking about that all week. When you have backing from your crowd and they are loud, you don’t get nervous. That truly helped these kids get through any kind of butterflies. We need it three more times.”
Gollier said the fans played a big role in catapulting Ottawa to the victories.
“The student section was so good,” he said. “The environment was so good. It is amazing. It helped us right at the beginning of the game a lot.”
Independence gave Ottawa everything it had. The Bulldogs led 21-20 at halftime, but Ottawa controlled the third quarter to take a 34-30 lead. Ottawa led 38-30 early in the fourth quarter, but Independence rallied within 42-40 late in the game.
Ottawa’s experience and heart took over.
“It takes heart to win those close games,” Gollier said. “When you get to this point, it is hard. You what is at stake. You have to buckle down and say ‘we are going to win this game.’”
Gollier said McCullough’s instructions between the third and fourth quarters were about playing with toughness.
“Going into the fourth quarter, coach McCullough said, ‘We have one quarter to make or break our season,’ ” Gollier said. “ ’Play as hard as you can and play with no regrets.’ We did. We are not going to go down. We are going to play every possession hard on defense. If they are going to beat us, they are going to have to make tough shots.”
Senior Dre Lane shut the door and locked up the state berth by knocking down pressure free throws in the final couple of minutes.
“Nobody bigger than the smallest guy we have,” McCullough said. “Dre hit the free throws when we needed to.”
Lane played more minutes than usual because of foul trouble.
“That is what we expect out of our guys, take advantage of your opportunities,” McCullough said.
Gollier said Lane’s confidence helped drive the team over the hump.
“He plays with no fear all the time,” he said. “Whenever I saw him get fouled and go to the free-throw line, I had no worries. I knew Dre would knock them down.”