Going into last Friday's Class 4A, Section 5 championship game, Osseo basketball player DJ Hebert worried less about winning than he did the prospects of enjoying the moment.
As a junior, Hebert and the Orioles defeated his former school, Robbinsdale Cooper, in the section championship game. This time around Champlin Park stood between Hebert and the state tournament.
After defeating the Rebels 50-40, Hebert realized the emotions were transferrable.
"It never gets old," he said. "It feels just as good as last time."
The big question this week is how much better Osseo is than last year. The third-ranked and fourth-seeded Orioles open at noon Wednesday against Duluth East (20-8) at Target Center. Like last year, Osseo boasts a 27-2 record. The difference comes from a more seasoned roster.
Eight seniors return with visions of a championship game appearance after finishing third last year.
"I hope they take it as unfinished business," coach Tim Theisen said. "We had a great run last year to take third place. I feel that our team is stronger and has a little more discipline. We have eight great seniors who held their composure all season."
The veterans lost their heads just once this season, and it resulted in their first loss. Osseo rolled into Champlin Park 11-0 and left with a stinging 54-53 loss.
"We were really cocky," junior guard Bridgeport Tusler said. "The fact that we lost was probably the best thing that could've happened to us. It opened up our eyes."
Talent was never the issue. Hebert (Northern Iowa) and Will Johnson (West Virginia) are Division I football recruits who bring savvy and size, respectively, to the court. Tusler averages 13.8 points per game, many of them scored on drives to the basket. Ian Theisen (no relation to the coach) is a 6-9 sophomore center who led the team with 14.2 points per game. Michael Brush, the fifth starter, was an all-Northwest Suburban Conference selection.
After the Champlin Park loss, practices took on a different feel as players rededicated themselves. They worked harder on the little things in hopes of fulfilling their state tournament aspirations.
"We've been working hard, sweating and bleeding -- I can't tell you how many bloody lips I've had this season," Hebert said.
A second bump came two weeks later with a 78-62 loss at Hopkins. Players gave the appropriate effort but got a lesson in executing at a higher level.
"The difference was the first three minutes of the second half," Coach Theisen said. "We turned the ball over on six out of the eight possessions."
Said Hebert: "We learned that even though in our conference we're the top dogs, we've got to stay humble because it's not that way in the state."
Osseo went 13-0 after the Hopkins loss, winning all but three games by 10 or more points. The ability to come back defined the Orioles last season. Taking higher expectations in stride sets the current team apart.
The state tournament, Hebert said, only amplifies that focus.
"We're not scared of anybody," he said. "I'm playing to win a state championship, and that's what I'm going to try and instill in the team."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574