COLUMBIA — The Rock Bridge girls basketball team had what appeared to be a pretty normal practice on Friday. They watched film, ran some plays and standard drills. There were smiles and high-fives all around.
But not even head coach Jill Nagel could pretend that this practice was close to normal.
Rock Bridge (25-3) vs. Blue Springs (27-4)
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Mizzou Arena
“Alright, championship practice guys, let’s go,” Nagel told the team.
At the start of practice, the Bruins were less than 24 hours removed from the end of a comeback thriller in the Class 5 semifinals against two-time defending state champs Incarnate Word Academy. Down by 11 in the last few minutes of the third quarter, Rock Bridge rallied back to win, 46-43.
“I’m still not really sure how it happened,” senior Carmen Boessen said. “So it’s kind of difficult to even think about."
But at the start of practice, the Bruins were also less than 24 hours away from the start of their next game: the state championship against Blue Springs.
But coach Nagel has made sure that Rock Bridge transitions from celebrating to focusing on its next opponent quickly.
“Coach just tells us, ‘Celebrate this until midnight. Then it’s over,’” senior Lindsey Cunningham said. “Last night was awesome, but we were looking forward. We knew we couldn’t get the championship game if we couldn’t get (the semifinals game).”
Rock Bridge has had a focus on the championship since the start of the tournament, and winning in the semifinals was just part it.
“We realized that that game wasn’t what we came to this tournament for,” Boessen said. “This next game is what we’ve been preparing for all season.”
When Rock Bridge played Blue Springs in early December, the Bruins lost 46-42. Nagel points out, though, that teams change over the course of the season.
“It was a long time ago," Nagel said. "We really respect Blue Springs. That’s our only loss in state. So we know we have to be ready for the challenge because it’s a team that’s got us before.”
Chayla and Kayla Cheadle and Audrey Holt played on the same AAU team as some of the girls on Blue Springs. But aside from that, there aren’t a lot of similarities between Blue Springs' and Rock Bridge's pasts.
This is Blue Springs' and senior standout Tyonna Snow’s fourth straight trip to the state championship. That gives the Wildcats an experience advantage that they will need since they have to travel over 100 miles to play in what is basically a home game for Rock Bridge at Mizzou Arena.
However, Blue Springs lost all three of those previous championship games.
“They’re going there for the fourth time, so they’re no stranger to this game,” Nagel said. “So to say that we’re going to do something different that they haven’t seen, probably isn’t the case.”
Rock Bridge, on the other hand, has not been to the championship game since 2008 when they won. But no one on the team this year was on that 2008 team, which makes it even more special for seniors Boessen and Cunningham, who can’t believe their high school careers are a game away from being completed.
“Audrey Holt said it best today,” Cunningham said with a smile and a nostalgic sigh. “Someone said ‘If we win tomorrow, it will make my year.’ And Audrey Holt said, ‘If we win tomorrow, it will make my life.’”
“We put so much time and effort. We’re practicing all the time. So if we could just get that final goal…I mean, I can’t really put it into words.”
Last month, Nagel said the Bruins’ goal this year was to win the District 9 Tournament. But now she admits that was just because they did not win the districts last year.
“(Winning state’s) been their goal from the very beginning,” Nagel said. “As coaches, we’ve reminded them that we didn’t win district last year. So we need to remember, you’ve got to do A before you can go onto B. So districts was our goal."
“But I think you can ask everyone of these kids, in the back of their mind it was ‘Yeah, but we want to win state.’”
Second place is what Blue Springs has had to settle for the past three years. But the Bruins, who think of themselves as newcomers, do not want to deal with the same disappointment.
“Just to be here is unreal,” Boessen said. “But if we don’t leave with a win, it’s going to feel like unfinished business.”