Whitfield is returning to the Class 3 Final Four and finds a familiar foe in its path.
The Warriors’ semifinal game will be a rematch of last year’s Class 3 state championship game between Whitfield and Strafford.
Coach Michael Slater is not making this out to be a chance of redemption for his squad. Last year is done. This is a new year.
It also brings a chance for his squad, which reached its first state final last March.
“Nothing can take away the loss from last year, but having the opportunity to play them again is exciting,” Slater said.
Last year, the Warriors lost 83-37 in the title tilt to Strafford as the Indians completed a spotless 33-0 season. Strafford also won the state title in 2016.
The two teams meet at 2:40 p.m. Friday (March 9) at the Hammons Student Center in Springfield. This is the first year for Springfield to host the state tournament.
Both teams again enjoyed solid seasons.
Whitfield is 22-6. Strafford is undefeated at 31-0.
Slater said the Indians are just as good as they were last winter.
“They are a very good shooting team. They share the basketball,” Slater said. “They have experience of winning and playing in this environment more often. It’s also like a home game for them.”
Strafford is just east of Springfield in Interstate 44.
On the other side of the bracket, Clark County (28-1) meets California (25-4) at 4:30 p.m.
The losers of the two semifinal games will play at 11 a.m. Saturday for third place. The winners will battle for the state title at 6:20 p.m.
Slater noted all four teams are talented.
“The Final Four always has a strong field,” Slater said. “With the two time returning champ, it’s definitely strong.”
The Warriors have seven returning girls from last year’s squad.
It’s a team Slate believed could go back and compete in the Final Four. When team began practice last fall, Slater said he was “absolutely” confident about his team’s chances of getting the opportunity.
“Getting to the finals last year provided the experience and the confidence for a return trip,” Slater said. “Most of our core group returned also gave us a lot to look forward to.
“They were very determined. Losing in the finals was motivation.”
Slater believes going through the state experience will help the Warriors this weekend.
“This definitely provides an added boost,” Slater said.
Whitfield advanced to the Final Four with a 68-40 win over Steelville in the sectional followed by a 59-43 victory over Saxony Lutheran in the quarterfinals.
“We has a slow start against Steelville, but the girls were very disciplined,” Slater said. “We had a much better start against Saxony Lutheran and that set the tone for the rest of the game.”
Slater likes how the girls have been working to get ready for the Final Four. He has the Warriors have been having “great” practices leading up to this weekend.
“They are taking this very seriously and they are business-like,” Slater said.
Springfield is a new destination for the state tournament.
“Since I’ve been coaching, the tourney has always been in Columbia,” Slater said. “However, Missouri State is a great institution and I’m sure that they will do a wonderful job. They have a phenomenal facility and we’re looking forward to it.
“Wherever the state Final Four is, that’s where we want to be.”
This is Slater’s fourth trip to the Final Four. He also led Nerinx Hall to Final Four appearances in Class 5 in 2005 and 2009.
Going back again with his team is something Slater relishes.
“It feels great. There are lots of teams that don’t get this opportunity and I don’t take that for granted,” Slater said.
Strafford is good as indicated by its unbeaten record. Slater said the Warriors have a couple of things they need to do to play for the state title again.
“We must maintain our focus and continue to do the things that got us here,” Slater said. “Staying out of foul trouble is very important as well.”
School isn’t off Friday but Slater said everyone who wants to go will have the opportunity to do so.
“Whitfield is taking very good care of us,” Slater said. “The administrative team, the student body, and the entire community has been awesome with the amount of support that we’ve received.”