Qualifying for a state basketball tournament never loses its luster according to South Gray boys basketball coach Mark Applegate.

He should know.

"It never gets old, going to state," said Applegate, who is completing his 29th season at the school, which for his first 10 seasons was Montezuma and his last 19 as South Gray when Montezuma consolidated with Copeland. "It's always a new group of players. It's special to see their eyes light up."

Following Saturday night's 66-42 romp over Hodgeman County in the Class 1A-Division I sub-state at Jetmore, the Rebels earned their spot in the eight-team state tournament that will tipoff Thursday for the boys at historic White Auditorium in Emporia.

Applegate's 22-1 team is one of the top four-ranked teams in Division I to reach the state tournament that are split evenly in the brackets.

His squad plays the 8:15 p.m. late game against Lebo (19-4), which plays in the Lyon County League and plays its mid-season tournament in White.

"They're not as deep as we are," Applegate said of the Wolves. "They've got a couple of big kids and they are fairly quick. We'll have to play well to have a chance to win and move on."

If the Rebels advance, Macksville likely would be their semifinal opponent. On the opposite side sits defending champion Hanover and Pretty Prairie.

All four teams have just one loss and it was Hanover that ended the Rebels' 2010 season in Hays with a 58-49 victory in the title game.

Applegate, who won his 500th game earlier this season, attended Emporia State University and is familiar with White Auditorium, but has never coached in a game played at the venerable facility.

"It's an old building, but it's been upgraded," Applegate said. "It's nice but not as open for the fans as Gross (Memorial Coliseum in Hays). It's just different. The good news is that the court is the same size, basket's the same height."

With three state championship rings, three state runner-up finishes and three exits in the first round in his previous nine trips to the state, Applegate is hoping to make his 10th trip memorable, too. It is the sixth straight trip to the state for his Rebels. They won consecutive titles in 2007 and 2008 before a first round exit in 2009 and the runner-up finish of a year ago.

With the loss of three starters from last year's team, including Telegram Player of the Year Chase Clancy, the rebuilding job for Applegate actually turned into a re-tooling project.

"It's one of the deepest teams I've had," Applegate said.

"It's easy to play seven, but most of the time I wouldn't be smart enough to play eight, but in this case we just are blessed to have that many good players."

The leader of the group is senior point guard Garrison Hendricks, a playmaker who leads the team in scoring at 13 points.

Senior forward Austin Love is the only other Rebel to average double figures at 10 points.

Junior Ronald Martens, who started earlier in the year before senior transfer Derek Ridenour became eligible in January, averages nine points.

Ridenour averages nearly nine points per game while junior guard Garret Watkins also averages eight points.

Offense is not the team's only strong suit, Applegate said he likes the defensive intensity his team has demonstrated all season.

"The intensity level of the entire game is what I've appreciated about this group," said Applegate. "They've really understood how important that is. They know they'll get a quality rest if they give everything they have out on the floor. That comes from having so much depth."

Applegate said the team has remained humble about making the tournament, despite being in Emporia and not Hays.

"You never take it for granted," Applegate said. "If you do, then you don't deserve to go."

See pairings in Scoreboard, Page B2.