This column is brought to you by the number four.
In the last four years, Mt. Pleasant boys? basketball has had three very different teams, but they all had one thing in common: each has earned a trip to the state tournament.
On Tuesday, the Panthers will make their fourth straight trip to Des Moines.
What is the key to going four times in a row, with so many different players? What else have these different teams had in common?
They all came with talent, they all worked hard and they all played with confidence.
But all those things, at least in part, go back to one other thing they have in common: their head coach, Paul Rundquist.
He won't tell you that he has played any part in his teams' recent success.
"I'm not the one who's putting the ball in the basket," he says.
But all the same, he?s clearly a coach who is respected and trusted by his players, and who gets the best out of his team, so I?m willing to give him a little more credit than he gives himself.
Rundquist has coached three different groups over the last four years. In 2009-10 and 2010-11, the Panthers had the same five starters: Henry Krieger-Coble, Scott Hahn, Darian Cotton, Eric Hahn and Austin Marshall.
That group started this state tournament streak with back-to-back appearances.
When they all graduated, a new group stepped up ? five new starters leading a team that hadn?t played much together before. I was new to town at that point, and when I heard about the transition, I thought...Well, this should be an interesting year.
And boy, was it ever.
The 2011-12 starters ? Jordan Ashton, Nick Lyon, Blake Vandenberg, Cameron Frank and Dalton Conrad ? led the Panthers to not only the state tournament, but also the state championship, where they defeated Western Dubuque in double overtime, a game that Panther fans will remember well.
When the three seniors departed, many players from that team remained: along with Frank and Conrad, Logan Mulford, Ryan Hanna and Connor Shull went into their senior year having a state championship under their belts, and a sophomore class that also traveled to Des Moines now became part of the regular varsity lineup as juniors.
But then there was a new twist: three transfer students joined the team: Faith Pope from Ottumwa, Brant Shelman from WACO and Brandon Sanchez from Danville.
They were thrown into a group of kids that had played for the same school, the same coaches for years. They were thrown into the ?system? ? a system that is regularly credited in postgame interviews as a key to the Panthers? success.
The new group of kids played some summer games together and got along really well, but being friendly is one thing and being able to play together in one big, defensive-minded system is quite another.
According to Rundquist, it didn?t all quite click until one very specific time: the second half of the game against Ottumwa. That game was on Feb. 4, not long after the team dropped a pair of back-to-back games against rival Ft. Madison and Burlington. Conrad was out with injury, and the team wasn?t sure that he?d be back.
At halftime, they were down by a point to the Bulldogs, a team that had only won one game all year.
But then it all came together, and the team rallied for a 66-35 win.
They did the same in the substate game against Solon on Monday ? after getting off to a slow start and trailing at halftime, the Panthers came back out and dominated the second half for a win.
While they were certainly frustrated as shot after shot bounced out in the first half of that game, the Panthers never panicked.
Why? When I talked to them after the game, they all said the same thing: Coach told us to keep playing our game, to keep playing defense, and good things would happen.
They believed him.
And that worked out pretty well.
All three teams over the last four years have played with confidence, Rundquist said.
They can play with that confidence because they believe in themselves, their teammates and their coaches.
?The hardest thing for a coach, at any level, is to earn the respect of the players,? Rundquist said. ?But these kids believe in the system.?
Learning the system starts early.
When he came to Mt. Pleasant 13 years ago, Rundquist started youth basketball camp for kids as young as first and second grade.
?I had my players work the camps, so the kids see their high school heroes on the court and want to grow up and emulate them,? Rundquist said. ?They understand that playing hard is fun, and playing hard together is very enjoyable.?
He knows the benefits, the fun and the excitement of learning the game at a young age.
?I grew up in a gym,? he said. ?I went to all the practices with my dad*.?
Gordon Rundquist was a long time coach at Maquoketa Valley and is currently an assistant coach at Iowa City West.
Athletes improve as they mature over the years, and so has Rundquist.
?I wanted to emulate my father. Early on, I think I coached like him. As I aged, and got more experience, our styles have changed a bit. With experience comes more knowledge on how to handle different situations,? he said. ?My ability to understand what works with kids (improved). Every kid is different, and you?ve got to get to know the kids. It?s important to get to know them from a young age.?
As he learns about who his players are, he adjusts accordingly.
High school coaches have to be able to adjust. Unlike college or pro coaches, they don?t get to bring in players that fit with their style.
?In high school, you have to work with the hand you?re dealt,? Rundquist said.
Rundquist is the first to say that he's been getting some pretty good hands dealt to him.
"The reason we're successful is that we've had very good players ? they have a really good work ethic, and they all play a lot. They put in a lot of time in the off-season getting stronger, getting better against good competition. They have extremely supportive parents.?
The kids and their parents are being rewarded for that dedication now.
It hasn?t been an easy road to get to these recent substate wins ? the Panthers? first four trips to the state-qualifying game under Rundquist ended in defeat. And there is, of course, no guarantee that this streak will last for years to come.
But a good coach gets the best out of his athletes, and that?s something that the town can count on Rundquist to do.
It?s all part of the system ? the system that demands the best of its players.
?We?re blessed with good athletes ? that?s just the gene pool here in Mt. Pleasant,? Rundquist said. ?The kids work hard and get stronger. If we get a team that is not as athletic, we?ll have to change our style a bit, but we?ll still have to be the aggressor.?
The Panthers? have a quick and aggressive defense, one that, this season, leads Class 3A in steals and has allowed fewer points per game than any other Class 3A team.
That defense carries over to an aggressive offense ? the Panthers take the ball to the basket.
The aggressiveness starts in practice.
?We don't go very long,? Rundquist said. ?We go short and intense. We hold the kids accountable. We're not out there dreaming of unicorns and rainbows, we're out there working hard, and our kids know they've got to give us their best effort. We practice with the sophomores in the gym, so they realize how things will be as juniors or seniors."
In turn, the kids give their best. For the last few years, their best has been pretty good.
So congrats once again to the Mt. Pleasant team ? you guys are a lot of fun to cover. Thanks to their parents for supporting the team...and for good genes, I guess. And a job well done to you, Coach.
*Speaking of dads, I would like to take just a short paragraph here to acknowledge my own dad, whose birthday is today. He might be the Panthers? biggest out-of-state fan, and he raised me with a love of sports, one of many things for which I am grateful. Happy birthday, Dad ? I love you!