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After losing in double overtime last season in the district tournament to Rapid City Central, the Douglas Patriots knew they were close to becoming a state tournament team.

Really close.

So close in 2017-2018 that they had to go into two overtimes in the Round of 16 before beating Brandon Valley and earning the school’s first state tournament berth since 1997, and first-ever as a AA school.

This time it went their way. The reward, other than the experience of playing in the state tournament, is opening Thursday against Rapid City Central ... again. The two area rivals will face off at 2 p.m. (MDT) in the Sioux Falls Arena.

Douglas head coach Travis Miller said it is a great opportunity for the Patriots, not only for his large senior class, but for the younger players to see what it is like at the state tournament.

Miller said the 11 seniors have worked hard for this opportunity. Getting to state, he said, is huge for the program that last won (Class A) in 1996.

“I had congratulatory texts from people I didn’t even know. There were a lot of alumni and parents of younger kids, too,” he said. “They see this and they want to be a part of it ... It was a big tribute to these seniors as they got this started, this spark of wanting to play and be a Patriot now.”

The Patriots, 16-5 and winners of 14 of their last 16 games, were one missed free throw, one missed layup … one possession away from not achieving this success, just getting past Brandon Valley 72-69 in two overtimes. In that game, Douglas had a lead, saw it slip away, fell behind and they rallied to take control in the end.

“We just kept our cool and played through adversity,” Patriot senior guard Chance Sorensen said. “Every day in practice, we do situations where we are down by one or two. We work on that just in case it is one of those games where we need it. We have it down pat and are ready for it.”

Miller said that the big thing is many of these players have been playing basketball for 15 years, and if they just go out and play basketball like they have, they will be OK.

As long as they play hard, he said, that is a win.

“Obviously we want to win on the scoreboard too, but I want the kids to play well and compete hard and do all of the right things too,” he said. “Hopefully the wins will come with that.”

The Patriots are led by their senior-laden squad, with seven players averaging at least 5.7 points a game.

Dylan Pourier tops the team in scoring at 12 points a game, followed by Dan Hand at 11.6. Russell Morton is at 8.5, followed by Darius Dawson and Cetan Big Crow at 7.2 each per game. Dawson leads the team in rebounding at 7.4 per contest.

To have success, Miller said it is all of the little things that they talk about during the season.

“It’s the same old thing that all of the coaches say: We have to take care of the basketball. You have to play defense," he said. "Central has those two good guards (Dylan Hay and Kailleb Walton-Blanden), so we have to make sure we get back in transition. We can’t give them easy baskets.”

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As the draw would go, the Douglas will meet their old friends in the first round. The Cobblers, the No. 2 seed, defeated the Patriots in a good game earlier this season, 77-70.

“Central is a very good team, obviously, and that is why they are the No. 2 team in the state. They have had a great season,” Miller said. “They have a lot of seniors also. In a lot of ways, they are in the same boat that we are in. They are a great team and we’re going to have to play really well and do what we need to do.”

Going in as the No. 7 seed might look as if the Patriots are underdogs, but senior Joesph Hannah said that isn’t the case. He said they deserve winning just as much as any other team.

“It’s great because we all came here as freshmen and we started talking about our senior year and what our plans were, making it to state,” Hanna said. “I’m glad that we are in, and we’re going to show that we are not the underdogs coming into the tournament. We’re going to give our best effort because, in all reality, we’re just as good as anybody else.”

Sorensen concurs and said the Patriots aren’t just happy to be there; they want to play in the final game Saturday night.

“I feel we have a good opportunity to win it,” he said. 

Regardless, the Patriots are back at state, and they hope it won’t be another 21 years before they return. Hannah said their success this year can rub off on the younger players.

It all starts with hard work.

“We can show them as long as you work hard, put your mind to something and stick with it, keep pushing forward,” he said.

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Sports Editor

Sports reporter for the Rapid City Journal.