The first time was a charm for the Crane boys basketball team this season, as the Pirates won the Class 2 state championship Mar. 19 in the school’s first-ever trip to the Final Four. The win also marked the school’s first state championship in any sport. It was a dream come true for the team, and especially for the Pirates’ four seniors.
“As a little kid, you dream of playing in the state championship game,” said senior Zach Akins. “I never thought that I would be able to experience it. The feeling was awesome, better than I ever could have imagined. When the final buzzer sounded, I thanked God for everything that He had done. We put all of our trust and faith in Him, and let Him do the rest.”
Getting to State had been a goal of the team since preseason. “Dreams can become a reality,” said senior Hunter Quick. “In the preseason, our coach (Rob Guerin) set a goal of making a trip to Columbia in March to play at State, and to not only accomplish that goal but to go on and win the championship is the best feeling ever.”
Senior standout Levi Cook led the way in the Pirates’ 77-63 victory over #4-ranked Bernie in the championship game with 42 points and 15 rebounds. Cook nearly recorded the first triple double in state championship history, as he also dished out eight assists. “I just came out thinking that it was just another game, and all my shots seemed to be falling that night,” said Cook, who also broke Crane’s 51-year old career scoring record this season.
“I have watched him play that style of game a few times, so it didn’t really surprise me much,” said head coach Rob Guerin. “He is always ready to deliver in big games and big situations. I wish he could have accomplished it (a triple double) with two more assists, but he still did an amazing thing.”
“I couldn’t be happier for him, and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person” said Quick of Cook and his performance. “He is a tremendous athlete and the best basketball player I’ve ever seen in Missouri at the high school level.”
Crane finished the season with a 27-5 record, but the way the season began did not exactly foreshadow the state championship to come, as the Pirates dropped three of their first five games. After a double overtime victory over Reeds Spring on Dec. 13, Crane reeled off five more victories, the last two coming in the Southwest Central League Tournament. The Pirates then lost back-to-back games to state-ranked Billings, the first in the SWCL championship game and the second a regular season contest six days later. The Pirates would not lose again, though, ending the season with 19 consecutive wins.
In the first round of the District Tournament, Crane dispatched Galena, and then rolled over Ash Grove in the second round by a score of 72-33. State-ranked Billings, the Pirates’ SWCL nemesis, was upset in the first round by New Covenant Academy in a 100-99 thriller. The Pirates defeated the Warriors 66-49 in the District title game.
Crane’s Final Four dreams were nearly dashed in the Sectional round, as the Pirates needed overtime to defeat Miller 56-54. After a 69-51 victory over Linn in the state quarterfinals, Crane was bound for its first Final Four in Columbia. The Pirates defeated upstart New Bloomfield, which entered the game with a 13-16 record, by a 68-49 count to advance to the Class 2 state championship game, as Cook led the way with 22 points.
The Pirates stepped up their defense in the postseason, a key factor in Crane’s march to Columbia. “I thought we would have a shot at the state championship after our first game of Districts,” said Akins of the Pirates’ 71-61 victory over Galena. “Everybody stepped up and played hard every minute. Our defense was the key to our success. Our team could always score, but the problem was keeping the other teams from scoring.”
“Our team defense improved throughout the year,” said Vermillion. The smothering Crane defense played a key role in the state title game, as the Pirates limited Bernie’s potent three-point shooting to just 8-for-34 accuracy. “Tough defense and rebounding are always our keys,” said Guerin. “We wanted to get a hand up on the three-point attempts and sure we boxed out and only allowed one attempt per possession. We also tried to push the tempo to a faster pace to get the other team into a mismatch or to have to play us in transition.”
The seeds of making the school’s first trip to the Final Four were sown in the preseason, and watered game-by-game throughout the season. “I told the boys, at the end of our summer games, that they had the potential to make a trip to Columbia,” said Guerin. “I told them that if they wanted that goal to become a reality, that they would have to work hard every day in practice and in games to get prepared for what any team might throw at us. After that, I hadn’t really thought about it. We focused one game at a time all season long, so when the postseason started we were used to focusing on one team and what to do to beat them. It made it easier to keep the boys focused on what we needed to do to be successful.”
The Pirates had the talents of an All-Stater in Cook, and the leadership of three other seniors, but this truly was a team effort. “We couldn’t have done it without our seniors or the rest of the team,” said Guerin. “They all played well and fulfilled their role well.” In addition to seniors Akins, Cook, Quick and Vermillion, the rest of the Crane Pirates included juniors Alex Estes and Cody Lumpkin, sophomores Jordan Bowling, Thomas Chabrecek, Bailey Moore, Cole Walden and Jonah Walker, and freshman Zane Mahan.
The trip to the Final Four itself was a big deal around the Crane community, and winning the state championship was a nice bonus for the Pirate faithful who made the trek to Columbia. “It means a lot, because this is one of the most memorable things that will ever happen to the Crane community,” said Cook. “It means a lot to the community and I think they will always remember their first state championship,” said senior Anthony Vermillion.
“This was a very big deal to our program, school, and community,” said Akins. “It was a big deal for our program, because this was the first appearance of the boys basketball team in the Final Four. It was big deal to our school, because this had never happened. There were signs all over our school saying ‘Good Luck.’ They also had a really big send off for us. This was a big deal for our community, too. The town of Crane was nearly empty while we played in Columbia. I want to thank everyone for their support.”
The Crane faithful were just as appreciative when the Pirates returned home with a state championship. “We are almost four hours away and had one of the biggest crowds that weekend,” said Guerin. “They showed their support by cheering loudly to keep the boys pumped up, and that helps our boys play that much harder. On Sunday (following the state championship game on Saturday), we made it back into town about 2:00 p.m., and they had signs decorating the road, along with a lot of people along the road and in the parking lot cheering, as we made our way back into town and unloaded into a mob of people. It was a great way of showing appreciation.
“I would like to say thank you to my assistant coach, Joshua Loveland, my wife and bookkeeper, Gretta, and my student manager, Zach Cook, for all of their help,” added Guerin. “We couldn’t have done it without Coach Guerin, Coach Loveland, Gretta, or all of our fans and family,” said Cook, who will play collegiately next season at College of the Ozarks.
Akins, a starter at guard, almost missed out on the state title run. The senior had planned to focus on baseball in his senior season, but was “bribed” into playing by Cook. “I didn’t even want to play this year,” said Akins. “I played because Levi told me that he wouldn’t play baseball if I didn’t play basketball. After losing four seniors from last year, I didn’t think we had any chance to make it past Districts. I thought that we were going to have an average year, but this was the perfect season.”
For the seniors, winning a state championship in their final high school game was a moment they will never forget. “It feels great that we were able to accomplish everything that was possible,” said Vermillion. “It was the best feeling ever, just knowing there was nothing more we could have done,” said Quick. “We accomplished everything we wanted to do. What a way to end my basketball career.”
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.