INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
Independence nearly matc ... »
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CEDAR RAPIDS — It took awhile, but they learned how to deal with the expectations others placed upon them.
It definitely wasn’t an easy process, though the Cedar Rapids Xavier Saints feel they’re better for going through it. And, to tell the truth, they believe they’re actually in the opposite position they were at the start of the boys’ basketball season.
Back to being the hunters and not the hunted.
“A lot of people have counted us out because of our record,” Xavier guard Matt Mims said. “I like being in an underdog role.”
It was where Xavier was a year ago at this time. The Saints were a pedestrian 13-8 going into the postseason, but made it to the state tournament, got hot and won the Class 3A state championship.
The tourney trail begins again Monday with a district semifinal against DeWitt Central (5-16) at Mount Vernon. Tipoff is at 6:30 p.m.
The host Mustangs (16-5) and Maquoketa (6-15) follow at approximately 8.
Xavier is just 10-11, worse than last season at this time, but it is a dangerous, dangerous team. You don’t have to have binoculars to see paralells to 2016.
“I feel like we’re playing very well,” Xavier Coach Ryan Luehrsmann said. “I think our chemistry has been good most of the year. Recently I think we’ve been playing better defense, we’re shooting the ball, and more importantly, we’re sharing the ball.”
Mims, Jackson Joens and Max Techau returned as starters from last season’s title team, which immediately ratcheted up the “repeat” talk. Those three have been the backbone of this team, all averaging double figures in points, with point guard Mims averaging five assists per game and Techau 8.8 rebounds.
But finding another scorer has been problematic. That, the burden of everyone thinking Xavier should be really good, and a 4A-centric schedule in the Mississippi Valley Conference contributed to a 4-9 start.
“I think it’s human nature to buy into hype a little bit,” Luehrsmann said. “When the media and your friends and everyone else is telling you how good you are, it’s hard to separate that from reality. The reality was we lost two really special players from last year’s team to graduation (Mitch Burger and Ryan Stulken). And this year, we had more multi-sport kids that played football and got off to a late start.”
One of those kids, Nolan Butkowski, has stepped up the last half of the season and provided a fourth scorer. Xavier ended the regular season winning six of its last eight games, losing only to Class 4A top-ranked Iowa City West and No. 9 Cedar Rapids Kennedy.
The Saints are the third seed in their eight-team substate. Should they get past DeWitt Central as expected, they’d most likely meet second-seeded Mount Vernon in a district final Thursday at Mount Vernon.
Davenport Assumption, which edged Xavier in a regular-season game, is the substate’s top seed.
“I think we can do big things,” Mims said.
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