COLUMBIA — The locker room door only swings one way. You cannot avoid seeing the poster as you walk out, be it for another regimented, mundane practice or a rivalry game.
"This is what we’re playing for," the yellow type reads upon the purple background. A picture of the 1983 Class 3 district championship trophy appears below.
"This is what we’ve earned," the next line reads. Below that is a picture of the 2010 Class 3 district runner-up plaque.
The poster ends with a question: "Are we willing to pay the price each day for greatness?"
The Hallsville girls basketball team is 13-0 and ranked No. 2 in Class 3. If snowed-in roads don't stop them, the Indians are set to travel 16 miles west along Missouri 124 on Friday to face rival Harrisburg, which went 31-0 last season and won the Class 2 state championship. On the way, Harrisburg beat the Indians three times, including a 25-point blowout.
A win over Harrisburg, which is 10-3 and ranked No. 5 in Class 2, would begin to determine to what extent the Hallsville players are considering the poster.
Coach Brad Blakemore made the poster after last year's season-ending loss to California, Mo., in the Class 3, District 8 championship.
“They’re self-motivating kids, but I think (the poster) does bother them,” Blakemore said. “It bothered me making it and accepting that. Sometimes when the kids are frustrated and don’t want to practice, maybe it turns them around a little bit.”
The intensity of the rivalry is also a big motivator, but restoring balance won’t be easy, especially in Harrisburg’s gym. Bulldogs coach Dan Bachmeier said he is treating this game like any other, but he said he knows the environment will be more electric than usual.
“The people really come out to support this game,” Bachmeier said. “It being Hallsville versus Harrisburg, of course the girls are going to feel it. In the past have we gotten pumped a little more? Oh yeah. It's not what the records are when Hallsville and Harrisburg play.”
The players all know each other. Some are related. Hallsville twins Lauren and Veronica Little are aunts to Harrisburg's Paige Heibel. Hallsville's Forge called it a “Missouri-Kansas game” and admitted that they don’t like each other very much.
Harrisburg's Chelsey Kroese agreed.
“You’re connected to them, so it’s harder to lose because they will rub it in your face,” Kroese said. “The last couple of years we’ve definitely had the edge over them.”
In last season's rout, Harrisburg solved Hallsville’s size advantage by applying full court pressure and traps at midcourt, which prevented the Indians from establishing their half-court offense and led to Harrisburg points off turnovers.
“That’s a common occurrence for the teams that play them,” Blakemore said. “If you handle their pressure, you have an opportunity to win. If you don’t, you have an opportunity to get embarrassed. They’re going to pounce on you, and it’s up to us to handle the ball in the open court.”
In a rematch two days later, Hallsville only lost by five. Harrisburg had to come from behind in their final meeting, which it won by six.
This year, Hallsville returns four starters, and its formidable front court remains intact.
Junior Lauren Little, a 5-foot-11 forward, leads Hallsville's front court, averaging a team-high 14 points a game. Her twin sister, Victoria* Little, who is 5-10, and Rachel Gall, a 6-3 junior, are also key contributors. Gall averages about nine points and eight rebounds a game.
Forge, a senior guard, and Taylor Dinyer are strong shooters and no strangers to Harrisburg's pressure. The Bulldogs, which lost all-state player Ashley Fisher, know that more than ever its offensive production will be determined by the number of turnovers the defense causes. Against Hallsville, it won't be as easy as it was.
"We were a pretty young team last year, and I think we've matured," Lauren Little said. "I feel like we can handle their pressure better this year."
On Tuesday, Forge hadn’t looked yet at the minute-by-minute practice schedule Blakemore posts on the gym wall every day, but she guaranteed handling pressure would cover at least half of it the next two days. It has been a focal point at most practices this season as most opponents have tried to limit production from the Littles and Gall by pressing.
“I think we’ve done that a lot more this year than last year,” Forge said. “A lot more teams bring the pressure against us because when we do get into the half court we have a really strong post and we can really use our half-court offense.”
Frequently beneath the practice schedule Blakemore posts an article that he thinks pertains to the Indians. On Tuesday an article hung there about Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s benching of a star player, with a passage about bad body language highlighted. Forge said the Indians sometimes get frustrated if things go awry, as they are bound to at some point against Harrisburg. Another article recently highlighted showing toughness by relentlessly doing the little things during a game.
“It’s something they can read and think ‘oh, that’s what he’s talking about,’" Blakemore said. “It doesn’t have to come out of my mouth because they get tired of hearing me.”