Probably the only thing tougher than living up to the expectations at a perennial high school basketball power like Howard is to go through a season under the radar.
But the Hustlin' Tigers are just one win away from achieving both. Unranked all season, Howard hadn't won a tournament it played in all season until claiming the Region 3-AA championship Wednesday but is just a home win over Cannon County in Monday's sectional round from reaching the state tournament for the fourth time in Walter McGary's five seasons as coach.
"There wasn't nearly as much hype around this team coming into the season as in previous years," McGary said. "We weren't even picked in the top half of our district in the preseason, so that tells you what people thought about us.
"But the folks that support this program wouldn't have been real happy if we had taken a step back. The kids knew that, and I think they have enough pride in the program that they just wanted to find a way to be good."
Despite having just one returning player with varsity experience, McGary said he knew this team could be good despite losing in its own Henry Bowles holiday tournament. The Hustlin' Tigers blew a six-point lead in the final 57 seconds and lost on a buzzer-beater to fourth-ranked Maplewood.
As he fumed outside the locker room that night, a visibly upset McGary said of his team young team, "We've got too many superstars who think they know more than their coaches. Whoever shows up for our next practice will learn a whole lot about teamwork."
McGary says now that the practices that followed were grueling and that he was determined to break bad habits and find out who wanted to help turn the season back in the right direction.
"This is not the most talented team I've had here by any stretch, but it is the most satisfying as a coach because they listened and figured out that the only way we were going to win was to play as a team," McGary said. "The practices after that loss toughened the kids up, and now we're a pretty deep team and a real good defensive team."
Seniors Barry Griffin, Keante Cameron and Demonte Suttles and junior Jarvis Ray established themselves as team leaders. Shortly after the Christmas break, McGary said the three seniors began to realize that not only the season but their high school career was slipping away. The resulting determination led Howard to win 13 of its next 15 games, including four on the final possession, proving it had learned a valuable lesson from the Maplewood loss about how to finish.
Despite being the top seed in last week's district tournament, Howard lost to rival Brainerd in the semifinals and wound up as the third seed going into the region tournament. But again, McGary turned the loss into a learning tool, and his challenge was answered with wins by 17, 25 and 12 points. In the region final, Howard held Tyner without a field goal for the first 6:44 of the second quarter and nearly the first five minutes of the third.
"We may not have a lot of great scorers this year, but we do have kids who understand that tough defense can win games for us," McGary said. "There were a couple of times this year when this team could have just laid down and quit, but that's not in them. They want to be remembered as another great Howard team that got to the state tournament. They want to make their own legacy."