By BRETT MARSHALL
When it was announced that Jeff Mathias would be replacing highly-successful Bill Peeper as the Syracuse High School boys basketball coach in July of 2010, the former assistant knew he had a strong nucleus of players returning for the 2010-11 season.
He just did not know how good. But now he does and he likes what he sees.
That's because under the watchful eye of Mathias, a 1998 Syracuse High graduate, the Bulldogs have met, perhaps slightly exceeded, even their new coach's highest expectations.
"It's been a lot of fun to see this group come along since they were freshmen," Mathias said. "To see their potential and what they've done in the offseason through the past several years is gratifying. You always ask yourself as a coach, 'Will they turn into solid contributors?' In the case of this group, they've just always had a lot of confidence that they can win."
The Bulldogs capped off their first stage of postseason play on Saturday at Greensburg with a dramatic 52-49 Class 2A sub-state overtime victory against Hi-Plains League rival Meade, and will now return to Manhattan's Bramlage Coliseum on Wednesday for a first-round matchup with Washington County in the Class 2A state tourney.
"I think anytime there's a change in coaches, there's always a sense of the unknown," Mathias, who had been an assistant to Peeper for six seasons, said. "This group won the Hi-Plains League in 8th grade and they've carried that confidence into this year."
The result is a 21-2 record, with the only losses coming at the hands of Oklahoma panhandle power Beaver in December at the Rolla Showcase, and then to the same Meade on the final Friday of the regular season that cost the Bulldogs the HPL regular season title. That 51-45 loss came on the Bulldogs' home court and it didn't set well with Mathias or his players.
"This group has short term memory but they didn't like losing to Meade, especially at home," Mathias said. "The same thing happened when we lost to Beaver. They just kept working to get better with each game."
The trip to Manhattan will be the program's sixth in eight seasons. The Bulldogs were fourth in Andy Coleman's final season as head coach before turning the Bulldog helm over to Peeper, who had been his aide for four seasons.
In Peeper's six years, the Bulldogs missed state in only his first season, 2005. Their run of four straight seasons from 2006-09 at state was capped off by a third-place finish in '09 when they went 23-3, the best mark in school history.
Mathias said he has not made wholesale changes from many of the offensive and defensive philosophies of his predecessor. Instead, he said he has tweaked some of the things for this year's group.
"We're not very tall and don't really have what you'd call a post player," Mathias said of his team whose tallest player is just 6-2. "There are many times when we're out there with four, even five who can play guard. That's different than we've been in the past."
So how does a team that shoots just 40 percent from the field, 32 percent from 3-point range, and only 63 percent at the free throw line win 21 games while averaging 51 points per game?
"Well, I'd say there's several reasons," Mathias said after pausing for a moment. "First, the team really gets along. They genuinely like each other and want to succeed and they don't care who gets the points. They're about as unselfish a crew as you're gonna find."
That statistic is borne out in their assist to field goal ratio in which they record an assist on 60 percent of their field goals.
Only one player — senior James Burkett — averages in double figures in points at 10.7 points. Junior Gary Parks is next at 9.5 points, followed by senior Braeden Simon (9.3), junior J.D. Howell (7.9) and senior Dustin Sibley (7.3).
That balance, Mathias said, has been critical when one player might struggle, any number of other players step up and take the scoring load.
"One time, somebody might be down and then somebody else is up," Mathias said.
"Second, they hustle all the time," Mathias said. "They never give up. They are good leapers, they're long and they get to a lot of loose balls."
The Bulldogs commit just 11 turnovers each game and they average 10 steals.
By punching their ticket to Manhattan, the Bulldogs will get a chance to erase the bad taste of 2010 when they lost an overtime thriller to Spearville in the sub-state finals at Leoti to have their run of four trips ended.
The Bulldogs lost its top two scorers, Andrew Brown and Tate Housholder, to graduation and then endured the transfer of potential starter Latigo Peterson to Texas where he could focus on his rodeo skills.
"It was really strange with how everything started," Mathias said. "Not once did I hear these kids make excuses about any of these factors.
"They've just had a mindset of moving forward. There might have been some skepticism out there, but it never infiltrated to the team. I think we've found out that we were a pretty good team."
Now that state is back within sight, Mathias wants this group to understand the reason they are going.
"Game one at state is the main thing," Mathias said. "Win and you get to stay around until Saturday. Lose, you make a quick trip back home, and its back to school and everything else. This is a business trip. The first game is huge. If you happen to playing late on Saturday, then you know you've had a special week and that's what I want this group to experience."
Statistics, schedule in Scoreboard, Page B2.