COLUMBIA — Bagels spread with peanut butter were the in-drive snack. A bottle or two of water helped wash it down.
The seating arrangement was standard: coaches and managers in front, then the players and then the cheerleaders. A few passengers' ears were plugged with ear buds or headphones. Others listened and chatted with friends. Some riders lay with their heads flush against their pillows.
The scene on the bus was normal, the routine mechanized and seemingly scripted. Just another part of the post-season itinerary for the Rock Bridge boys basketball team.
On its face, the trip was like any other one for the Bruins, who have been considered state title contenders from the season’s outset. This trip to Rolla for the Class 5 quarterfinal against Branson was a long road on a season-long sojourn.
At stake for coach Jim Scanlon’s squad was a chance to play a state title in its hometown, on the floor of Mizzou Arena and just a couple of miles north of its home gym.
On Saturday night in Rolla, that process didn’t go as smoothly as it had been planned during the week leading up to the game.
The Bruins (27-2) secured the win, and a spot in the Class 5 semifinal at 3:20 p.m. Friday against Chaminade (25-4), but the game against the Branson Pirates would be one where their structured preparation almost wasn’t enough.
Three days earlier, on March 4, the Bruins dismantled Waynesville in its sectional game. And a week earlier, they battered their archrival Hickman for a district title. All was going according to plan.
The team’s practices that week ran like clockwork: after school, stretching and warm-ups first, followed by simple drills that led into complex play calls and finally watching game films.
From free throws to layups, the intensity among the players rarely faded.
When it did fade, it was reignited by head coach Scanlon, using anecdotal humor to point out mistakes players were making.
Such instances were few and far between, but they helped keep players on an even mental keel.
The work ethic exhibited by the players was kept in check by the coaching staff. Assistant coaches Blair Scanlon, David Egan and Travis Gabel and student assistant coach Brady Hammond provided added insight to Scanlon’s teachings.
The tasks of the assistant coaches include repositioning players in various sets on the floor by walking them through the necessary sequences and reminding them how to guard an opposing player on the perimeter.
Simply, they help fill in the gaps in the players’ understanding and act as a second set of eyes for the head coach. Scanlon stood off to the side as the assistant coaches practiced with players, bringing a level of athleticism beyond the typical high-school player’s ability.
Scanlon is realistic about preparing his team. He can only provide them with the basic tools — scouting reports, game film and walk-throughs — to make his blueprint a reality. The players have to assemble the final product the best they know how.
Upon arrival at the Missouri University of Science and Technology’s gym on Saturday afternoon, the players took some time to pace the court and gain a better feeling of their surroundings.
The gym was empty apart from a few Branson fans, and the silence of the gym enveloped the players. As they took their seats on the bench, several players were listening to music, others briefly chatted but most held silent, preparing themselves for what was ahead of them.
As game time drew closer, the locker room filled but was far from raucous. The team increasingly cut out what chatter remained. In its place, coach Scanlon’s voice and pre-game remarks filled the void.
His speech was not one to pump up his team. Rather, it was centered on preparing the team with a last-minute review of scouting reports. The atmosphere was more like the classroom setting the players experience every day before practice.
Scanlon emphasized once more that it was up to the players to execute everything they had practiced and learned.
The plan was simple: Branson couldn’t win if they didn’t have the ball. That strategy was a key feature to Rock Bridge’s second-half success in the game.
Even the Branson student section realized the Bruins were implementing that tactic. They voiced their displeasure by chanting an ominous “This is boring!” as Rock Bridge methodically worked through its offense like it had during practices.
As the final seconds of the fourth quarter started, stopped, started and stopped again, members on the bench interlocked arms in solidarity.
With 15.3 seconds left in the game and Rock Bridge clinging to a 55-53 lead, Jordan Dressler was at the free-throw line. In a chance to put the game four points out of reach, he was only able to tack one more point onto the scoreboard.
With a chance to tie the game, Branson turned the ball over to Skylar Tolson of Rock Bridge. But once again, the game didn’t go according to plan, as Tolson missed the layup on the other end.
Again Branson had the ball with a chance to win. With 2.1 seconds left, they heaved the ball down court and quickly called a timeout. Only 1.6 seconds remained.
On the restart, Branson turned the ball over for what would be the final possession change. The score was set in stone at 56-53.
The Rock Bridge bench exploded onto the court and the student section spilled out to meet them. Cheerleaders rushed as well, with or without pompoms. All converged together to celebrate the victory that was a long time in the making.