(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
FARMINGTON -- After losing to Lutheran North in last year's state quarterfinals, the goal was obvious for Charleston heading into the 2002-2003 season.
"We were knocking at the door last year," Charleston head coach Danny Farmer said back in November. "We want to crash it down this year. Our goal is the Final Four."
Farmer's Bluejays can accomplish that goal on Saturday night when they play Hancock in the Class 3 quarterfinals at the Farmington Civic Center. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m.
"Like I told the kids today, it has come down to one game," said Farmer. "I think we have the potential to get there."
Charleston's last trip to Columbia came in 1996. The Bluejays had a loaded team that year, starting Jeramy Biles, Rashad Oliver, Corey Kent, Rico Sinks and Larico Coleman.
Farmer sees similarities in this year's team.
"We have some comparisons," said Farmer. "Rashad was real tough inside, and we've got a couple of guys that are real tough inside. On the boards, I think there is a definite comparison. All five of those guys could play, and I feel we put five guys on the court this year that can play also. No doubt about it, this is the best team we've put on the floor since that team."
Charleston has had a near-perfect season up to this point. The Bluejays are 26-3, undefeated against Missouri opponents.
In the regular season, they proved to be the best team in Southeast Missouri, beating Poplar Bluff to win the SEMO Conference outright.
After blowing through the district tournament, they soundly defeated Doniphan in Wednesday's sectional game.
Now the only thing standing between Charleston and Columbia is an upset-minded Hancock team.
The Tigers check into Saturday's game with a record of 24-5, recently upsetting Arcadia Valley in the sectional round. They are very athletic and play an up-tempo style. "They're very similar to Doniphan," explained Farmer. "They shoot a lot of 3-pointers. Like Doniphan, they're not very tall. They don't have much of an inside game, but they're a hungry and determined team. They're a team that we can't take lightly."
Hancock offers up a balanced attack, with three players averaging double figures.
Chris Pickins (6-2, sr.) leads the way with 14 points per game, followed by Tommy McMahon (6-2, sr.) at 14 per game and Joe Mathes (5-10, sr.) with 12 a night.
McMahon did the most damage against Arcadia, scoring 25 in a 67-52 victory.
"Pickins is a real good athlete," said Hancock head coach Jeff Buscher. "He can slash and he can shoot. Mathes and McMahon are both 3-point guys that are capable of taking it inside. We like to get it and go."
Hancock has never reached the quarterfinal round before. "This is new territory for us," said Buscher. "Hancock has never had a team go past where we went (Wednesday) night. Our kids were really excited when we won districts, and they were really excited when we won (Wednesday) night. But with a senior-oriented bunch, I think we're out to get more."
Charleston is led by center Kewain Gant (6-8, sr.), who averages 15 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots per game. Sophomore forward Ashton Farmer (6-6) is also a force, averaging 15 points.
Farmer pumped in a career-high 34 points against Doniphan on Wednesday.
Other starters include Marcus Biles (5-7, jr.), Deshaundray Hamilton (6-1, sr.) and Trentez Lane (5-11, jr.).
"They're big, they're quick and they're fast," said Buscher of Charleston. "They create matchup problems for us because of their size. By no means are we fearing them, but we definitely respect their ability. We know they're a good team and we're going to have to step up and play well or it will be over early."
What makes this Charleston team such a special group?
"We are so unselfish and play so well together," answered Farmer. "We don't have a problem giving the ball to the open man. When you look at the box score, we have a different guy that leads us in scoring night to night. We will have one guy score 20 one night, and two the next night, but then somebody else steps up and scores 20. It has been like that the whole year."
Charleston has outscored its 29 opponents this year by an average score of 71 to 55. The large amount of blowouts has allowed Charleston's bench to gain valuable varsity experience.
Joshua Strayhorn (6-2, jr.) and Dadrian Jones (5-11, sr.) both play on a regular basis, giving the Bluejays depth.
"We had a team goal this year," said Farmer. "We don't care anything about individual goals like who scores the most points or anything like that. If you want to have a chance to win state, you have to have a complete team. You never know when a key player is going to get in foul trouble or something. You need a guy that can step in there and keep it going the same, and I think we've established that."
Charleston has made 13 Final Four appearances, winning state nine times. After a seven-year drought, the Bluejays are ready to get back to Columbia.
"I think this team wants to make its own mark," said Farmer. "Since '96, we've been talking about going to state, but haven't done it. These guys don't know anything about it. They see the banners on the wall and they want to be a part of it. We've played through all types of adversity this year, I think we're ready for anything."
But are they ready for Hancock?
"We feel we're going to win it if we play up to our potential," said Farmer. "This is our game to lose."