Nothing can take away the sting of losing in a state championship game, but a fire truck ride, a police escort and cheers from the community went a long way to easing the pain the Litchfield boys team felt Saturday.
"That was really nice," said the Dragons' Zach Kinny, whose team lost 55-39 to Plainview-Elgin-Millville in the Class AA state title game Saturday afternoon at Target Center in Minneapolis. "That kind of relieved everybody."
Following the game, the Dragons were met by the entourage and led to an assembly at the school. It was a champion's welcome for a team that fell just short of earning the school's fourth state title in the last 12 years.
"We had a great year," said Litchfield head coach John Carlson. "We had a great run through the (Wright County Conference), finished second in a very good conference, and we did a good job in the sections. And we played a very good game (to beat defending state champ) Perham in the semis. The team did a great job all year."
The Dragons cruised through Section 6AA and defeated Watertown-Mayer, one of Class AA's top teams, for a second time this season in the first round of the state tournament.
Then came the dramatic, 33-31 win over Perham in the semifinals, with Kinny hitting a 15-foot jumper at the final buzzer for the victory.
"That was the best feeling in the world," said Kinny, who noted that twice during the regular season he took last-second shots with a chance to win ballgames and missed both times. "I would've traded making either of those to making this shot. It was incredible."
Against PEM, the Dragons played as if they were primed to repeat that experience, but the Bulldogs proved a more formidable opponent. Not that anyone but the players and coaches themselves, believed that.
The Bulldogs, who finished 27-6, were not ranked in the Minnesota Basketball News' final regular-season top-10 poll and were not among Class AA's top four seeds.
"That's what makes this so nice, how underrated we were," said PEM's Beau Nelson, who led the Bulldogs with 21 points Saturday. "The nice part about it was proving everybody wrong."
Doing that required some halftime soul-searching, even with a 24-20 lead, he said.
"We came out slow in the first half, like we were kind of in shock," Nelson said. "But we came into the locker room and we all looked at each other and said, 'We are not going to be beat tonight.' "
Litchfield, no doubt, expresses similar sentiments in their locker room, but cold shooting, turnovers and difficulties handling the long and physical Bulldogs on defense proved too tough to overcome.
"We were real prepared for them," Carlson said. "We knew what their strengths were and we knew where their strengths could really hurt us. We just made too many poor decisions and too many turnovers. It was very uncharacteristic of our season."
But that season was not a lost one. The Dragons finished 26-6, and with time to reflect they are beginning to see a lot more upside than just one tough loss, Kinny said.
"At first we looked at it as a failure of a year," Kinny said. "Now, when we look at it and we're not in denial, we were second out of 120-some teams. We're proud of how far we made it. Some people didn't even have us ranked in the top five in our section this year, so it means a lot to prove some people wrong."
Plainview-El.-Millville 55, Litchfield 39
Litchfield (25-6) 20 19 -- 39
Plainview-El.-Mil. (27-6) 24 31 -- 55
LITCHFIELD - 14-43 FG (4-20 3-pt); 7-13 FT; 33 rebounds; 15 Fouls ... Scoring: Jon Terning 3-11 0-0 8, Zach Kinny 4-8 2-3 11, Zach Whitchurch 1-9 0-0 3, Mitch Wollin 3-7 3-6 9, Dylan Koll 1-3 0-2 2, Tyler Lareson 1-2 0-0 2, Cody Wilson 0-0 2-2 2, Joel Madsen 1-1 0-0 2 ... 3-point shots: Terning 2-8, Kinny 1-3, Whitchurch 1-6 ... Rebound leaders: Terning 4, Kinny 6, Whitchurch 3, Wollin 9, Koll 4, Larson Quinn Anderson 1, Trevor Park 1 ... Assist leaders: Terning Whitchurch 2 ... Steal leaders: Whitchurch 1, Wollin 1
PLAINVIEW-ELGIN-MILLVILLE - 22-48 FG (2-9 3-pt); 9-15 FT; 30 rebounds; 18 fouls ... Scoring: Chase Montgomery 1-10 0-0 2, Cory Speer 6-13 5-7 18, Beau Nelson 8-12 4-4 21, Sam Ruth 5-8 0-2 10, Luke Hugstad 1-1 0-0 2, Nick Shanks 1-2 0-0 2 ... 3-point shots: Speer 1-5, Nelson 1-3 ... Rebound leaders: Nelson 6, Montgomery 10, Shanks 5 ... Assist leaders: Aaron Grube 5 ... Steal leaders: Speer 2, Montgomery 2