Nearly 30 minutes after the game had ended, the floor still was full of Monarch players and fans.
Joe Hertel, the longtime boys’ basketball coach at Thomas More Prep-Marian, sat in the bleachers, acknowledging congratulations from passers-by.
There was a big reason for all the commotion and congratulations — the Monarchs had just qualified for the Class 3A state tournament in Hutchinson with a thrilling 58-55 win against Ellsworth in Minneapolis.
“I’m not going to lie to you there,” Hertel said about the chances of his team making state at the beginning of the season. “I thought the way we closed out last year and won the league title and had a bunch of kids that played hard, I thought things looked good for us. I’ll admit, we had some issues mid-season with sickness and disciplinary issues in the tournament and both Phillipsburg games. We might get a chance to play them again. I’d like to because I feel like we’ve never been full steam.”
Perhaps it was a bit of foreshadowing as Hertel soaked in the moment.
When the schedules for this week’s state tournament were announced Sunday morning, the Monarchs found out they would see Phillipsburg again — in the first round at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
TMP (17-5) is the No. 7 seed, while the Panthers (21-1) are the tourney’s No. 2 seed.
Atchison-Maur Hill-Mount Academy (22-1) is the top seed and plays Council Grove (11-11).
A win by TMP or Phillipsburg would put either Mid-Continent League team into Friday’s 8:15 p.m. semifinal against either Cheney (21-2) or Perry-Lecompton (20-3). Caney Valley (21-2) and Halstead (20-2) round out the 3A qualifiers.
The two league foes make up part of three MCL teams that advanced to state on the boys’ side. Plainville is a 2A qualifier.
“That’s pretty exciting,” Hertel said about MCL teams at state. “That’s pretty dadgum exciting.”
Phillipsburg has beaten the Monarchs twice this season — 66-42 in the MCL tourney title game and 79-62 at Phillipsburg.
Now the Monarchs enter Wednesday’s third meeting having won six in a row — including a one-point win at Plainville.
And the Monarchs made their way through a tough sub-state field without senior David McFarland, who was on crutches after injuring an ankle against Plainville.
“We did what we did tonight without arguably one of our best players,” Hertel said. “That’s growing character in a short amount of time, and that just makes me proud.”
It also gives Hertel a sense that something special could be in store.
“I do,” Hertel said. “I just think I have a group of guys that refuse to take no as an answer. They found a way here and found a way to finish here. We’re just going to go down to Hutch and see if we can win a game and make a week of it. That’s our goal — as simple as that. I just want another group of kids to get to feel what it’s like to be on the big stage. I get to take another group there, and that’s pretty fun.”
TMP has been led by the inside duo of seniors Michael Lager and Creighton Renz. Both have led the team in scoring in different games, as has McFarland. Lager poured in 23 points in the sub-state title victory.
“He has phenomenal footwork,” Hertel said about the 6-foot-4 Lager. “I’ve drilled those kids for six years, and that’s to his credit. But the thing he does best is he has such a high shot release that even jumpers can’t get there. He’s great around the rim. He had a big ball game for us.”
Senior guard Trenton Mayo finished with 14 — and was a key reason the Monarchs got off to such a hot start.
The Monarchs finished second in the league to Phillipsburg, with the Panthers accounting for the only regular-season league loss for the Monarchs.
The Panthers’ lone loss came to Central Plains, the No. 1-ranked team in 2A, by a 59-27 score Dec. 9. Since, Phillipsburg has won 18 in a row.
Junior Trey Sides leads the Panthers’ balanced attack with 12.1 points per game, while senior Jordan Ford adds 11.4 per contest.
Phillipsburg beat Goodland 48-39 in the Colby sub-state to advance to state.
TMP’s trip is the first since the 2015 season, when the Monarchs lost in the first round of the Class 4A Division II finale. The trip will be the school’s 16th overall, dating back to 1971. TMP won titles in 2005 and 2007 under Hertel.
Phillipsburg qualified for the first time since 1973 and has reached the final four only twice in school history — 1972 and 1973 — and has never played for a state title. Phillipsburg coach Keith Sides also picked up his 200th win this season in the sub-state semifinals.
The Panthers also made state trips in 1926 and 1955, losing in the first round.
At the 3A finale in Emporia in 1972, TMP beat Phillipsburg 67-54 for third, while the Panthers finished third a year later.