The Bulldogs meandered through the season with just nine wins and a last place finish in the SEMO Conference, winning zero games.
But when it's all said and done, it will be just a footnote for the Bulldogs' 2004-05 season.
Instead, Notre Dame's season will be remembered for its unlikely run to a district championship, capped by a 56-52 victory against top-seeded Dexter on Friday night in the Class 4, District 1 title game at the Perry Park Center in Perryville.
Notre Dame (12-16) will take on District 2 winner Festus (23-5) on Wednesday at 8:15 p.m. at Mineral Area College.
For Dexter, it's becoming an all-too-familiar trend. The Bearcats (21-6) have lost five times in district championship games since 1999 despite being the top seed three times.
They also were the top seed in 2000 but lost in the semifinals.
Dexter did snap a 28-year district championship drought on its way to a fourth-place finish in the state tournament last year, but that didn't make Friday's loss any easier to swallow.
First-year Notre Dame coach Paul Hale was head coach at Dexter from 1996
-2001 and was a mentor for current Bearcat coach Eric Sitze.
"It's bittersweet," said Hale. "I feel for Eric and the kids. I'm just proud to win a basketball game, no matter who it was. It wasn't Dexter over there, it was just an opponent. There was no extra incentive over there. I'm just proud for these kids right here. They deserve it."
The third-seeded Bulldogs got the boost they needed at the start of the district with the return of 6-foot-5 senior Bryce Willen, whose courage, hustle and serious basketball skills propelled them to three straight victories, including a 60-58 semifinal win against second-seeded Sikeston on Wednesday.
Willen pumped in 25 points against Sikeston and had 18 against Dexter on Friday.
Without Willen, Notre Dame lost to both Dexter and Sikeston during the season, but kept the scores respectable.
"We played Sikeston and Dexter without Willen and we played with them," said Hale. "So we knew we could compete with them. You put Bryce in there, he kind of put us over the top. He's the difference, no doubt about it. He's, by far, the spark that helps us."
Indeed, Willen, who suffered a season-threatening knee injury during a soccer match in the fall, made his return a triumphant one.
"In addition to his undeniable talent, he also put his body on the line with numerous dives to the floor for loose balls.
It appeared that the rest of the Bulldog team fed off his energy.
"They have a lot of momentum right now, getting a player like Bryce back at the end of the year," said Sitze. "That's what a team needs at this time of the year -- you need that little shot in the arm and that's what he's given them."
Still, Dexter seemed to be in control of the game in the fourth quarter as they held a 49-45 lead with 3:28 left.
But Jeremy Brinkmeyer canned a 3-pointer from the right corner to pull the Bulldogs to within one and provide much-needed momentum.
Later, Bulldog junior guard Frankie Ellis popped a 15-foot jumper to give Notre Dame a 50-49 lead.
Ellis scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half. He had 10 points in the fourth quarter alone.
"Boy he did have a big night," said Hale. "Frankie hit some shots. He hasn't done that too many nights. If he can do that, he's going to be special too."
After an Eric Rinehart free throw tied things up at 50-50, Notre Dame took the lead for good.
Willen hit a soft bank shot to take a 52-50 lead with 1:40 left. After that, Dexter had a pair of turnovers that proved costly. Ellis made 1-of-2 from the free-throw line with 47 seconds left to push the lead to three.
After another turnover, Notre Dame's John Klein made 1-of-2 free throws to lead 54-50 with 22 seconds left.
"Turnovers at bad times late hurt us," said Sitze. "That's what a good pressure defense does to you. They'll force you into playing fast and force you into turnovers. I felt like we forced turnovers but we couldn't finish our shots."
Dexter's Scott Admire scored an offensive putback with 13 seconds left to cut the lead to 54-52.
The Bearcats called a timeout to set up their full-court press, but Klein slipped past down the sideline and scored a layup while being fouled with seven seconds left sending the Notre Dame faithful into a frenzied celebration.
He missed the free throw but his layup sealed the victory.
"It's just good for these kids -- good for our program," said Hale. "We've been down for two years and we've taken some lumps. Maybe this will jumpstart the program and get it to where it has been and where it should be. It was a fun atmosphere. I've always liked district games. That last timeout, when our kids came over I said, 'ain't this fun?' They just looked at me and said, 'yeah it is pretty fun.'"
Notre Dame led for most of the game, leading 12-10 after one quarter and 27-21 at the half. They led by as much as eight at two different points in the second quarter.
The Bearcats struggled scoring in the paint, missing numerous point-blank shots.
"We can't be too disappointed with what we were getting in the first half," said Sitze. "We missed so many of those little chip shots in there -- you know, layups -- off that press. And that's what you want. We just couldn't get them to fall."
Dexter started making some headway in the third quarter as they eventually took a 39-37 lead heading into the fourth.
Ellis scored six straight points to start the fourth quarter, giving the Bulldogs a 43-39 edge.
The Bearcats fought back and led by four on two different occasions but couldn't hold on.
"Dexter's got a fine team," said Hale. "They might have had a little extra pressure coming in with the number one seed and high expectations. It just happened to be one of our better games and one of our nights."
Dexter was led by Admire's 15 points. Chris Guethle followed up with 13 points. Rinehart added 11 points.
The Bearcats only had one 3-pointer in the game.
For Hale, it was a district title that had been long overdue after directing Dexter to three incredible regular seasons, only to come up short.
Hale's last district championship came in 1992 while coaching at Bernie.
"Paul's a great coach and I owe him a lot," said Sitze. "His kids play hard and our kids play hard. They just happened to hit a few more shots than we did tonight."
Dexter will lose six seniors including all five starters.