As their teammates cut down the net following the District 7 2B championship game last Saturday, St. George’s standouts Dexter Sienko and Erik Muelheims sat on the bench exhausted.
The district final was the tightest finish the Dragons (21-1) have had since a 55-54 midseason loss to 2A Pullman. It was the most minutes – at least most intense minutes – the pair had played all season, and Sienko and Muelheims needed a couple of moments to catch their breath.
St. George’s had a 48-35 lead over Colfax and just 4 minutes stood between the Dragons and a district title. But the Bulldogs made them earn it, pulling within 49-47 with 17 seconds to go before falling 51-47.
“I was pretty tired,” Muelheims said. “I was thinking about the game and what we could have done differently. I wasn’t very satisfied with how we played the game.”
The No. 1-ranked Dragons have routinely routed teams this season. They don’t have the late-game conditioning some teams possess. They know from this point on through the state tournament that games will be much different than the regular season.
The Dragons find themselves where they thought they’d be last year – challenging for a state title. But Sienko, a 6-foot-6 post, suffered a season-ending broken leg in the second game last season, and a couple of other injuries slowed them down.
They don’t have to look far to know how a state title is won. Last year, league rivals Colfax and Northwest Christian met in the state final captured by the Bulldogs, and NWC took home the title the year before.
Sienko, Muelheims and Will Tender, all juniors, are three-year starters along with senior Mark Kenney, who was the first player off the bench as a freshman.
The foursome have had nothing less than a state title on the brain since last year.
“If we play the way we’ve been playing, work hard and do all the fundamentals, we should be in good position to win state,” Tender said.
St. George’s coach Ryan Peplinski knows a state title won’t be handed to his team.
“For one thing, things have to line up for you,” said the 12th-year coach. “You have to stay healthy. My first year we went to state and three guys came down with 104-degree temperatures. The flu hit us at the wrong time. The other thing is you have to stay out of foul trouble, and you have to get a little lucky.”
The leader on and off the court has been Kenney. A three-year captain, he hopes to finish as just the fourth student in school history to graduate with a 4.0 grade-point average.
Kenney was well within range of eclipsing the 1,000-point milestone this year. He ranks 11th all time with 892.
But Kenney knew that the Dragons’ best chance at success this year was if he deferred from scoring.
“My mindset this year was I wanted to win a state title and the best way to do that is by not taking every shot I could possibly take,” Kenney said. “The way I see my role is to try to keep everybody calmed down and doing what they need to be doing. My favorite thing to do is play defense and cause turnovers.”
Sienko averages a team-leading 18.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. Muelheims, the Dragons’ point guard, averages 15 points, 4.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds and Tender averages 10.4 points and 4.8 rebounds. Kenney is the fourth-leading scorer (7.6).
While Muelheims does his share of scoring, he sees his role as something more than piling up statistics.
“I need to make sure the team is running effectively,” Muelheims said. “If somebody isn’t having a good game, I need to share some encouraging words. I don’t need to score on this team. We have a lot of different weapons. I could score five or less and I’d be satisfied if everybody else was having a good game.”
Sienko didn’t see last season as a lost year even though he wasn’t able to play.
“It gave guys like Mark and Will a chance to improve their games,” Sienko said. “It really helped them and prepared them for this year.”
The Dragons are heavily favored to run the table at the 2B Subregional with District 9.
“What I appreciate is how hard they work day in and day out at practice,” Peplinksi said. “Every practice is a battle. They prepare to win. When you don’t have to coach intensity it makes it pretty easy.”