It's not easy to be a boys basketball player in Walnut Grove.
Thanks to people like Abby Creed, Hannah Harman, Heather Harman and Audree Crain, Walnut Grove has become a girls basketball school, complete with four state championships since 2007.
But on Saturday Darin Meinders and his Tigers will have a chance to change all of that.
Fitting, because it was Meinders that helped resurrect the girls program in 2007 with the first state title in program history.
Now he has a chance to do the same with the boys and it could be even more special.
Walnut Grove hasn't been to the Final Four since 1988. That team lost to perennial power Scott County Central in the state championship game.
This group has been especially hungry after last year's Elite Eight run ended with a 65-63 loss to Leeton.
Not many expected the Tigers to bounce back with the graduation of 6-foot-3 all-state forward Dallas Hawk. But since then, Walnut Grove has made this a Final Four or bust season, taking no prisoners on its way to one of the best seasons in program history.
For that, the Tigers have taken a beating on social media.
The fiery, in-your-face brand of basketball, mixed with a big bravado on and off the court has not made Walnut Grove many friends. Nor has the warm-up shirt featuring Drake lyrics "Got a lot of enemies" and the saying "They hate us cuz they ain't us".
All the outside talk, positive and negative, has led to this group becoming a more cohesive unit and ultimately making them a better team.
They've learned to embrace the hate…
“I like it, I think we all like it; it is us against the world and I think we all feed off that,” said sophomore Logan Thomazin.
Senior Dallas Meinders agreed.
“We don’t play this for other people,” said Dallas Meinders. “We are here to win a championship and we’re in this for each other; we’ve got each other’s back so it's not a priority for us to have anyone else's support.”
Junior Jaron Dishman is no stranger to Columbia. His sister, Jaycie, made a Final Four run as a freshman with Marionville in 2011, but had to wait three more years to get her ring in 2015 with Walnut Grove. Jeff Dishman, their father, was an assistant on that team and neither has is shy about letting Jaron know that his finger is missing something.
The youngest Dishman is ready to get his own bling.
“It’s time for me to get one and join the club,” said Dishman. “They give me a hard time occasionally. We’ll be sitting at the table and they’ll just hold it out there for me to look at and I can’t really say anything, so I want my own.”
It's also a family affair for Meinders.
His first state championship came with his father, Vern, as his assistant coach. Six years later he led the Chadwick girls to Columbia with his wife, Dana, sitting next to him on the bench. His first championship game on the boys side could come with his sons, senior Dallas and freshman Dawson, wearing Walnut Grove uniforms.
With nearly 10 years between appearances in a state championship game, Coach Meinders hasn’t necessarily changed how he prepares his teams, but he does value the experience of advancing to the Final Four more than he did initially, made evident by his hoverboard, which has made its rounds through the hotel lobby.
“I don’t think my approach has changed, but it’s more about trying to enjoy the time away from the court and savoring the moment of being here,” said Coach Meinders. “It’s special to get here and it’s something that some people take for granted. There are schools that in the entire history of their programs haven’t been to the Final Four. When we take the floor we want it to be all business, but outside of that I want them to have fun and enjoy themselves.”
Dallas was in third grade when his dad won his first state title in 2007 and hasn't wanted nothing more than to give him another. For that to happen Meinders and the Tigers will have to knock of No. 1 and undefeated Stanberry.
The Bulldogs were the 2013 state runner-up, finished third in 2014 and won their lone state title in 1971.
A chance to win the first title in program history, against the No. 1 team in the state, that just so happens to be undefeated?
Sounds like a Disney script, but Walnut Grove wouldn't have it any other way.
“We haven’t played in a tournament all year that we haven’t played for the championship so it’s nothing new for us,” said Coach Meinders. “These kids have played in big games. People have called us underdogs and I’m fine with that, but we are going to leave it all on the floor and win or lose, as long as we do that we’ll walk off the floor happy. I’m sure when it’s all over we’ll sit and think about it, but right now we couldn’t ask for a better ending.”
As always, his kids have his back.
“They’re a really great team and they haven’t lost yet, but we’re excited to have a chance at them,” said Meinders. “We respect them, but we aren’t going to back down from them just because they’re undefeated. We are still going to go in expecting to win, just like we do any other game.”
Walnut Grove and Stanberry are set to tipoff at 8:10 p.m. Saturday evening at Mizzou Arena.