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Rock Creek players celebrate Saturday after beating St Marys in the sub-state championship game in Council Grove. Dawson Zenger (holding the sub-state title plaque) scored 22 points in the Mustangs’ 55-43 victory. Rock Creek will host Royal Valley at 6 p.m. Tuesday in a Class 2A quarterfinal matchup.

COUNCIL GROVE — Rock Creek guard Dawson Zenger hoisted the Class 3A sub-state plaque into the air with one hand, and with the other, he motioned the Mustangs’ limited student section onto the court.

Players and fans met at the 3-point line in the left corner. Then they formed a mosh pit to celebrate the Mustangs’ first trip to state since 2017.

Rock Creek beat St. Marys 55-43 in Saturday’s sub-state title game at Council Grove High School. Zenger finished with 22 points, 16 of which came in the second half. And after St. Marys sent the Mustangs home in tears last season, Rock Creek returned the favor Saturday.

“I have a lot of emotions,” Zenger said. “You saw me crying after the game. I’m just so happy.”

The Mustangs led for all but 3:12 of Saturday’s game. After Bears guard Keller Hurla gave them a 23-22 lead with 7:32 left in the third quarter, Rock Creek grabbed the lead for good.

The Mustangs spent the next 4:54 on a 13-0 run, capped by two Zenger free throws that came off a St. Marys turnover. Zenger said Rock Creek’s legs were “gassed” against the Bears after winning a sub-state semifinal game just 24 hours earlier. But while fatigue hurt the Mustangs’ jump shooting (they were 0-for-5 from 3-point range), they summoned enough pluck to overcome their exhaustion on defense.

“It’s all heart,” Zenger said. “Our heart was just bigger.”

Perhaps Rock Creek siphoned extra fuel from the painful memories of seasons past. St. Marys eliminated the Mustangs from the postseason in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Last year’s loss hurt the most. Afterward, Zenger wrote himself a letter to remind himself of the pain. Head coach Jim Johnston invoked the loss any time he felt his team wasn’t practicing hard enough this season.

“Do you remember that feeling in Royal Valley last year?” Johnston would say. “We’ve got to focus. We’ve got to work hard.”

Now that pain is gone, replaced by Saturday’s memory of inflicting that same pain on their Mid-East League rival. Zenger punctuated the victory by flushing his first career dunk with 1:17 remaining. And as the buzzer sounded, he blew the Bears’ fans a goodbye kiss.

“They were yelling at my teammates all night, and that kind of made me mad,” Zenger said. “Nothing personal — that’s just the competitor in me.”

Rock Creek forward Caden Vinduska, who finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds despite yielding five inches to 6-foot-7 Bears forward Fred Criqui, said it felt “awesome” to earn retribution against beat St. Marys. Fellow senior Brooks Whaley (four points) dubbed the revenge “super sweet.”

Together, the seniors continued the hoops tradition laid by the their predecessors. Rock Creek advanced to state four straight years before Whaley, Vinduska and Zenger joined the program. Johnston would’ve called this class special regardless of accolades — “I don’t have to say much in pre-game talks,” Johnston said. “They know what they’re doing.” — but Whaley, Vinduska and Zenger wouldn’t have left high school satisfied without tasting the tournament themselves.

“State was our goal all season,” Whaley said. “Especially (considering how) good this class is, coming home without any hardware or without a trophy would’ve been terrible.”

The Mustangs met their goal, but their mission isn’t over yet. They’ll host a Class 2A state quarterfinal game at 6 p.m. Tuesday for the right to play in “Hutch,” as the players all called. They’ve all been, but they’ve never played at the Hutchinson Sports Arena, located on Hutchinson Community College’s campus.

Now, they’re one game away from having that opportunity.

“You ever watched Hoosiers where they walked into (Hinkle Fieldhouse)? It’s kind of like that,” said. “It’s a totally different atmosphere. It’d be fun.”