You don't have to explain heartache to Strafford… they get it.
For a school that doesn't have a state championship to its name, the Indians have come incredibly close over the last few years.
Like really close…
Strafford has had three Final Four trips in boys basketball since 2011, including back-to-back trips over the last two seasons, but all of them went for not, culminating in last March's 61-46 loss to Barstow in the Class 3 state championship game.
This fall, it seemed like Strafford Volleyball was poised to become the first to bring home some bling after going undefeated during pool play at the Final Four. But, Strafford ultimately lost to Lutheran St. Charles in two sets.
And, seniors Kaylee Larimer and Logan Eden remember it all vividly.
They were captains on that volleyball team and fans in Mizzou Arena on those Final Four runs.
In fact, there aren't many current Lady Indians that haven’t played or cheered on Strafford in its recent success; this is a community that supports its own.
Which is why Saturday's Class 3 state championship tilt with Saxony Lutheran means so much, not just to them, but to the entire community.
“It was a sucky feeling, making it that far and then losing it in the final game of the year,” said Eden. “It was just blaahhhh.”
Her classmate agreed.
“After this fall I know what to expect now, but it also makes me really want to win this because I know how it feels to lose,” said Larimer. “I don’t want that feeling again, so I really want to win tomorrow.”
Steve Frank is in his first Final Four run with the Lady Indians, which just so happens to be the first in program history, but he also isn't a stranger to this.
As a prep star at Clopton, Frank went to not one, not two, but three Final Fours from 1983-85, walking away with a pair of runner-up finishes and a third place plaque. One of those defeats includes a 40-37 loss to Springfield Catholic in the 1984 Class 1 title game.
The following year he set a then single-game MSHSAA record for field goal percentage by going 15-for-16 from the field (94%) in a 74-56 win over Lincoln.
As a coach he guided an undefeated Seymour team to Columbia in 2011, but his Lady Tigers lost to eventual state champ Mount Vernon in the semifinals, 43-36.
His assistant coach, former Ash Grove head coach Jesse Alsup, led the Lady Pirates to the Class 3 state championship in 2014, but they would fall to El Dorado Springs in that program's first-ever state championship.
Frank believes those negative experiences have helped this current group in their first trip to Columbia.
“I think we do value it differently now,” said Coach Frank. “We talk about it, with both of us having the experience of not winning, we talk about what happened, what we didn’t do, and I think we’ve applied it to this group.
With the combination of two of our experiences being pretty recent we’ve been able to do everything possible with this group to get over the hump that we didn’t get over before.”
That hump is more of a mountain with Strafford facing a Saxony Lutheran team that has won 106 games over the last four years, including a pair of Final Four runs. Their roster includes eight seniors, compared to just two on Strafford’s roster.
Despite the lack of experience, Strafford seemed oddly calm and collected on Friday night.
They admit that nerves will probably come closer to Saturday’s 11 a.m. tipoff, but nothing a little pregame turn-up session can’t fix.
Their song of choice is typically “Bet You Can’t Do it Like Me” (I even got a full preview. It was classic).
Win or lose, when Larimer and Eden hit the floor on Saturday, it will be for the final time competitively in a Lady Indian uniform.
Both seniors have been a pillar of Strafford Athletics over the last four years and the finality of Saturday hasn’t completely settled in, but both have given thought to what it will mean.
“It’s really crazy thinking about it that today was our last practice,” said Larimer. “I just didn’t want to stop shooting because I know I won’t get to do this ever again. After tomorrow we won’t be playing basketball together anymore so we just want to go out on a high note.”
Eden was more taken by the fact that Saturday will be the end of an era; the last time she and her teammates will share their pregame rap.
“It’ll probably sink in when it’s all over that I won’t be with this group of girls ever again,” said Eden. “It’s the last time I’ll play with Kaylee. It’s just sad; I won’t have this dynamic again.”
Frank understands that feeling well.
Well, maybe not so much the rapping part, but even despite a decorated high school career, followed by a hall of fame career at College of the Ozarks, it’s not the games or points that Frank misses most, but moments like his team experienced on Friday night, just sitting around and talking.
“When I got done playing, in high school and in college, people would always ask me if I missed it and I didn’t miss the running and some of the other stuff, but you miss this, just being around your teammates,” said Frank. “Those are the things you value the most. You miss being around all those people. The biggest thing is the relationships you build with your teammates.”
But, Frank’s freshman twin daughters, Hayley and Kayley, know well that the one thing missing from their dad’s laundry list of accomplishments is a ring. Neither downplayed the impact of what it would mean to be on the team that delivers his first.
“I've heard so many times about how my dad has come up short and since probably fifth grade I've thought it would be the best thing ever to win that state championship for him,” said Hayley Frank. “It would be an amazing feeling to know that all those hours we've put in in the gym have paid off. My dad has been the biggest influence in my life and has shaped me into the person and ball player I am today. For that reason there would be no greater accomplishment then winning tomorrow with him and for him.”
Kayley agreed, almost word for word which is impressive considering the Franks were asked separately…
“Since I was able to walk I've been at all of his games and heard his pre-game speeches and half time talks. I've been at every practice since sixth grade watching his teams work hard to make the dream of going to state a reality. He always tells me his high school basketball stories and the main thing he says is he's never been able to win a state championship. There would be no greater feeling than winning state and I would like to win tomorrow to make both of our dreams come true!”