There's a certain level of expectation that comes when young men put on a Humphrey St. Francis basketball jersey. Few programs have enjoyed the kind of regular trips to Lincoln the Flyers make seemingly every year.
Granted, since St. Francis first qualified to state in 1940, 24 state tournaments in 79 years isn't all that often. But for basically two generations, anyone born in 1970 and beyond, the Flyers have advanced into the tournament 18 times. Or, since 1988, a little better than every other year.
Thus, a year ago was a rather foreign feeling for players and coaches. St. Francis was home in early March for the first time in three years and missed state for just the fourth time in the last eight seasons.
A large contingent of seniors moved on to the next stage in life, and the Flyers were left in somewhat of a rebuilding mode. Talent remained, but it was raw and unproven.
On Thursday, that raw, unproven group brings a 22-4 mark to a 25th trip to state when St. Francis faces Johnson-Brock at 9 a.m. at Lincoln Northeast High School.
"It was weird. It was something we haven't done since I was like...I don't even know, sixth grade or something. It's been a while since (missing state)," senior Jarrett Weidner said. "It was a weird feeling."
Weidner is the lone senior on a group that opened 1-1 before rolling off seven wins in a row. The Flyers then suffered back-to-back defeats before finishing the regular season campaign 14-1.
Losses included Class D-2 No. 2 Riverside, D-1 No. 3 Fullerton, C-1 school Auburn and C-2 team Howells-Dodge. Though Auburn and Howells-Dodge aren't ranked in their respective classes, all four of the previously mentioned teams are state tournament teams.
St. Francis also owns a win over Fullerton when the teams met in December, and victories over David City Aquinas and Twin River in C-1 and Shelby-Rising City and Clarkson/Leigh in C-2.
The win over Fullerton followed by competitive contests with Auburn and Howells-Doge two weeks later in back-to-back games, is when coach Eric Kessler and the team began to believe in the potential it began to reveal during summertime workouts.
A difficult schedule plus little separation between starters and bench players made for a group tried and tested both every day in practice and every night out on the court.
"We've continued to get better. When you have a young team, you hope that's the case, and that is for us. We've played our best basketball the last month of the year," Kessler said.
"We've got a very competitive team. People are fighting for playing time. We have some very good players who don't get a lot of minutes. That's been a big reason for our success. We practice so hard because we have to."
The final month includes the wins over Aquinas, Shelby-Rising City and Twin River. St. Francis opened postseason play with a 74-28 thrashing of Osceola and a 41-32 win over Mead in the sub-district title.
The Flyers completed the run to state and cut down the nets in Hampton in a 16-point win over Lawrence-Nelson.
They enter state as the No. 4 seed and lead off with a game against a Johnson-Brock squad that took down St. Francis on its home field in the D-2 football semifinals.
Johnson-Brock completed the championship in a 26-point blowout of Mullen.
"It's nice to be back. It's been so long ago, you don't think about it, but it was tough not being there," Kessler said. "It makes it a little more special this year how difficult it is to make it. You sometimes take it for granted, but we're happy to be back and excited to be playing on Thursday."
St. Francis has seven state championships and has won a game in 19 of its 24 previous state tournaments. The Flyers have played in the championship game 13 times.
"I'm just glad we made it. It's keeping the tradition going," Weidner said. "I'm super proud of what we've done already. Looking at us, a lot of people think they could probably beat up on us pretty good. But we've been holding our own this season."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.