By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
MANSFIELD — Any attempt to compare this year’s Strafford girls basketball team to those who came before it, the ones who established a record for consecutive state titles, will be immediately shot down by coach Dustin Larsen.
After all, in some ways there is no comparison.
When the Indians posed for a photo after winning the Class 3 District 10 championship on Thursday night at Mansfield High School, players needed to use both hands to illustrate how many district titles they’ve won in a row.
Emma Mullings led all scorers with 13 points, while Emma Compton and Lauren Jones added 10 apiece as Strafford used a big run in the second and third quarters to pull away from Sparta and claim the school’s sixth straight district championship with a 53-44 win.
The Indians have now won 37 consecutive playoff games dating back to the 2016 season, the year they won their first of five straight state championships. Thursday night’s victory ensured they’ll have a shot at a sixth when the state tournament begins next week.
“It’s humbling,” Larsen said. “These kids work hard. Every year is a new group. We lost four starters from last year and this group steps in and we just keep plugging away. I’m so proud of the group and how they grew throughout the season.”
With four juniors and a senior in its starting lineup, the 2020-21 Indians have not been nearly as dominant as they’ve been during their run of state titles. They’re 20-6 entering the tournament, which matches the total number of losses they had over their previous five years combined.
But Larsen is quick to downplay that statistic, noting that his message throughout the season is to ensure this group of Indians can play up to their own potential. The goal was always to work through the growing pains and have the team play its best basketball in February and March.
Plus, five of those losses came to teams that are currently ranked in the top 10 in their classes.
“Any time you take a loss, it’s an opportunity to grow,” he said. “When you haven’t done it in a while, it’s hard to remember that. I’m just proud of our kids for keeping that focus during those losses, being strong and continuing to grow and get better to be the best version of this group.”
After falling out of the state rankings earlier in the year, Strafford has surged back to No. 5 in Class 3 and survived one of the state’s toughest districts with including a dramatic three-point win over Hartville in the semfinals.
Class 3 No. 9 Sparta (19-7) and Strafford traded blows for much of the first half, but the Indians never trailed and had built a six-point lead in the second quarter. Then Sparta’s Laney Humble and Megan Brown hit back-to-back shots to cut the advantage to 21-19 with 1:45 before halftime.
That was the beginning of the end for the Trojans, as Jones hit a 3-pointer on Strafford’s next possession that touched off a 19-3 run that stretched well into the third quarter.
Sparta didn’t hit another field goal until Brown scored with 1:45 left in the period, a full eight minutes after the run began, and Strafford’s Mattilyn Walker scored on a third-chance rebound a few moments later to end the onslaught. At that point, the Indians held a 40-22 advantage.
“We had multiple times to take the lead,” Sparta coach Joshua Loveland said. “With my kids being young, a lead is a lot easier to play with. Even though (Strafford) is extremely experienced in this situation, the pressure of them getting beat may build on them. I felt like the whole time, if we could have gotten the lead and just kept it, that was going to be key for us. We missed a couple opportunities and they got a couple opportunities. Next thing you know, we’re down eight at the half and then we come out in the third quarter and were just bad offensively.”
Nothing went Sparta’s way during the third, perhaps summed up best by one sequence.
The Indians threw a long pass to Walker underneath the basket, but she tripped and Sparta was poised to receive possession as the ball slowly rolled out of bounds. But Hannah Hess sprinted to the corner to save it just in time and the Indians found Mullings for a wide-open 3-pointer.
“The bounces just went their way for like a six- or seven-minute stretch,” Loveland said. “When you’re hot, you’re hot. And when you’re not, you’re not.”
Sparta briefly made things interesting in the fourth when Brynn Holt twice cut Strafford’s lead to 10 with a 3-pointer, but Mullings immediately responded with a trey of her own each time.
“We didn’t want this to be our last game,” Mullings said. “We knew we had to come out even better than we did. We just had to get those steals — and we did — and we got those open layups.”
Strafford held Humble, who had been averaging over 24 points per game, to just eight points. Holt and Brown each had 12, but the Trojans fell to 0-6 when scoring less than 50 points. They were 19-1 when above that mark, but were unable to solve Strafford’s man defense.
“We wanted to focus on making them earn everything,” Larsen said. “Keep them out of the lane and protect that area.”
Now Strafford shifts its focus to a first-round matchup with No. 7 Steelville or No. 9 Licking in the state tournament on March 3. Those two teams will meet Friday for the District 9 championship.