This was the seventh time that Skip Dolan has brought an Annandale team to the boys' basketball state tournament. The first was in 2004, and then there were five in a row from 2013 to 2017.
The best result was being a runner-up after a decisive 60-41 loss to Esko in the 2014 Class 2A final.
The Cardinals were back there on Saturday to face Minneapolis North, a school with six previous state titles, ranging from four in the largest class to two in the smallest.
“I can't stand what's going on. I don't know how we're going to get a handle on stupid.”
The easy angle was to declare Annandale as an underdog, although that wouldn't have taken into account the Cardinals' riding a 28-game winning streak, and with the last victory coming in Friday's semifinals against Caledonia and Iowa State recruit Eli King.
As it turned out, North's attempt to use pressure defense to play at a fast pace only worked briefly, when the Polars had a 9-2 blitz to take a 19-14 lead.
Dolan called timeout with 7:02 left in the first half, the Cardinals went back to getting layups off cuts and dives to the baskets. They led 30-23 at the half and were never in trouble again, pulling away for a 60-49 victory and Annandale's first-ever state title.
The coach brought four of his five senior starters to a postgame interview session. He talked of the great optimism with this collection — all three-sport athletes, 2-2 to start the season with some leftover football injuries, and then a 29-0 finish.
As Annandale was winding down its media session, North coach Larry McKenzie and most of his players were arriving outside the small interview room.
Dolan followed his players to the door. A couple of Cardinals offered brief congratulations to the Polars, the traditional "great season,'' but then Dolan stopped.
This did not come off as a rival coach trying to win a sportsmanship medal, but rather sincere congratulations to North players that had been through much, kept fighting to the end on Saturday, and were a "class act'' on the floor and off.
"I wish you the best,'' Dolan said. "I'm going to be following you where you go after high school, and I'm sure there will be great things.''
Dolan then shook hands with McKenzie and headed toward the long hallway to the locker room.
I was standing there and we also shook hands. Then, before I could mention it, Dolan said:
"Did you hear what happened with that team last night? I can't stand what's going on. I don't know how we're going to get a handle on stupid.''
North had defeated Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta and its outstanding center, Jackson Loge, in Friday night's semifinals. Late in the night, there was a social media message sent directly to North's Jacob Butler containing serious racial slurs.
It came from a non-playing student in one of those high schools involved in the sports cooperative.
McKenzie talked in the interview room about his team's issues in this loss — an inability to make jump shots, layups allowed on drives and dives, and Annandale handing the Polars' trademark pressure — and then was asked about the racist message sent directly to his player.
"We don't have a United States of America,'' McKenzie said. "There's a lot of divide … And I'll tell you as somebody who's 60-plus years old, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
"And I think It's getting worse. This is not just a [Minnesota State] High School League responsibility, but it's all of our responsibility as a community. That cannot be acceptable behavior.
"I'm a believer that there is no greater tool in terms of fighting racism and the divide than athletics. Athletics bring people together, right? And it's not the athletes, but it's those folks out there that allow young people …
"Where did he learn that at? Think that was the first time he did that? Where did he learn that type of behavior?"
McKenzie also said this of his team, representing a North community that remains shocked by the murder of DeShaun Hill, 15, a North sophomore and athlete, on Feb. 9:
"I'm proud of these young men in terms of what they've gone through. Being a teenager at 17 and 18 years old, and losing a classmate and a teammate, that's not common in a community. Missing almost a year and a half of school because of COVID and then teachers decide to walk out and not having school for 10 more days …
"This senior group, in 2020, COVID hit and they don't get to finish that season. They've gone through more adversity than any other group of kids could probably [face] in their lifetime."