For the first time in several weeks when Cahokia basketball coach Darian Nash arrived at school on Wednesday, the topic of conversation wasn't budget cuts with the dark cloud of the possible elimination of certain athletic programs looming in the background.
Instead, Nash arrived, groggy-eyed and still half-asleep, but elated following the Comanches' exciting 56-48 win over Chatham-Glenwood on Tuesday in the Class 3A Springfield Super-Sectional.
The win clinched the Comanches first trip to the state tournament in 28 years and meant a no worse than a fourth-place finish.
"It was electric around school today. The players are excited. The kids in classes, the teachers, administration, everybody was talking about it,'' Nash said before practice Wednesday. "Winning and getting to the state tournament is a tremendous morale boost for the students, the school and the entire community of Cahokia.
"We're not done yet. We're going to Peoria this weekend with the idea of winning the state championship.''
The Comanches (32-3) first test will come at 2 p.m. on Friday, when they take on the Chicago Orr Spartans (23-2) in the second of two Class 3A semifinals at Carver Arena in Peoria.
Top-ranked Chicago Morgan Park (31-3) will take on Bartonville-Limestone (24-9) in the first semifinal at 12:15 p.m. The semifinal winners will play for the Class 3A state title at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Both the Comanches and Spartans are newcomers to the Class 3A state tournament. The state tournament appearance is the second in school history for Cahokia, which placed fourth in the Class AA state tournament during the 1984-85 season.
Orr, a member of the famed Chicago Public League, will be making its state-tournament debut when it takes on the Comanches. As of Wednesday, Nash had very little knowledge of Cahokia's first-round foe.
"I really don't know anything about Orr. All I know is that they've got a couple of big kids inside who are supposed to be (NCAA) Division I recruits,'' Nash said. "With just two days to prepare, we're going to do what we do well and hope to adjust as the game goes on."
Orr, which advanced to Peoria by defeating North Chicago 63-49 to win the Hofman Estates Super-Sectional is led by 6-foot, 7-inch junior TyQuone Greer and 6-8 junior Marlon Jones.
Both Greer and Jones average right around 17 points per game and are considered to be among the top underlassmen in the state.
Greer has DePaul ranked high among his list of college choices, while Jones is being recruited by Purdue, Illinois and Baylor among others.
"I understand they are very quick and they run the floor well,'' Nash said. "Orr is bigger up front than we are, but Darius (Austin) and Vincent (Jackson) play bigger than they are and athletically, I think we can compete with anyone.
"The key will be on the defensive end. We've worked hard on defense and it's like I'm always telling the kids. Defense wins championships.
Senior Keenan Minor and the 6-7 Austin lead Cahokia's offense. Minor is one of the top 3-point threats in the state, averaging 21.7 points per game while Austin is third in scoring for Cahokia at 12.2.
Hard-nosed 6-4 forward Vincent Jackson is averaging 13.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, while Carleton Rivers, Gary Hickman and Derenzo Jennings all have had their moments during the postseason for the Comanches.
Jennings had nine points on three 3-point baskets in the first half while Hickman and Jackson combined for 14 points in the opening two quarters of their win over Chatham-Glenwood.
"The kids have picked each other up all season,'' Nash said. "There is no doubt in my mind that we'll be ready to play on Friday.
"This is it. This is what some of these kids have worked for the past three or four years. We won't have any letdowns. We're focused and we're ready to go.''