Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is live up to immense expectations.
Nashville’s boys have done just that this year, fulfilling preseason predictions of a trip to the 2A semifinals in Peoria by holding down the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press poll almost all season and then validating that ranking with a dominant run through the postseason.
After five straight playoff wins by an average margin of 19.4 points, including a 41-28 Super-Sectional defeat of Teutopolis on Tuesday night in SIU Arena, the Hornets are two wins away from their first state title since 1978.
The next obstacle is Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, who they play Friday night at 7:15 in Carver Arena.
“We knew it was going to be a grind,” Nashville coach Wayne Harre said of the season and meeting the high demand for success. “We knew people were expecting it. It goes back to what we always talk about.
“We always tell them, ‘Let’s play the game, bust our tails all the time.’ I don’t think people understand the pressure when that target’s on your back every game. It says a lot about the character of this team.”
That character got a stern test just before the season’s halfway point. The Hornets started 15-0 and took a 47-28 drilling against Briarcrest Christian, a private school power from the Memphis area that recently won a Tennessee state title, in the finals of a holiday tournament at Breese Mater Dei.
Then came a trip to SIRR Mississippi rival Pinckneyville, which busted out a four corners offense that slowed the tempo and made Nashville so crazy to score when it had the ball that it committed 14 turnovers. On a last-second Hunter Riggins 3-pointer, the Hornets lost, 31-29.
They had no time to dwell on a two-game losing streak. The next morning, they faced a long trip to Highland for an 11:30 a.m. tipoff against Effingham. Playing just over 14 hours after a tough loss, Nashville grinded out a 57-48 win.
“I thought that was a huge game for us,” Harre said. “We learned a lot from it. They bounced back and they just play the game. They seem like they’re having some fun.”
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The Hornets have had nothing but fun since early January. They enter Friday night’s game with a 19-game winning streak and haven’t allowed more than 39 points in a game since a 67-52 decision over Du Quoin Jan. 11.
In that 16-game span, Nashville is yielding only 28.9 ppg, limiting teams to under 30 points eight times. Its defense should get a worthy test from GCMS (32-2), which has been held under 50 points just five times this year.
Led by 6-5 senior forward Ryland Holt (14.4 ppg, 9.5 rebounds), who along with Hornets star guard Bryce Bultman (14.6 ppg, 6.4 rebounds) was named to the Associated Press Class 2A second team Thursday, the Falcons have won 31 straight games since two losses in the season’s first week.
Those defeats occurred with key players like 6-2 Bryce Barnes (14.1 ppg, 7.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists) helping the school’s football team win its second straight state title. The day after adding more hardware to the school’s trophy case, Barnes and his teammates were trading shoulder pads for sneakers and starting a streak which has lasted about 3 ½ months.
“It’s a testament to the kids and their competitive nature,” GCMS coach Ryan Tompkins said. “The postseason was a little more of a physical grind because of the juggernaut of teams they had to go through, but it was hard to keep those guys from wanting to play.”
Harre said that the Falcons would be tough to guard because they have great athletes and a lot of talent. But if anyone is equipped to guard them, it’s the team that hasn’t even allowed a point a minute for close to two months.
“There’s nothing glorious about playing on the defensive end,” Harre said. “It’s tough and you have to stay with it. You have to buy into it, and believe that hard work usually pays off.”
And leads to expectations being fulfilled.
NOTES: Friday night’s first semifinal is an all-Chicago matchup featuring Corliss and two-time champion Orr at 5:30. … Nashville’s Carson Parker (14.6 ppg, 6.0 rebounds) and Barnes earned honorable mention on the 2A AP squad Thursday. … It hasn’t officially been confirmed, but a Hornets state title would make Harre the first coach to win boys and girls state championships in Illinois. His Nashville girls team captured the 2013 2A championship.