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Rock Creek’s Mason Sturdy (4), Brooks Whaley (5) and Dawson Zenger (3) and after their teammate, Caden Vinduska (32) drew a foul on a made shot during Friday’s game against Riley County. The Mustangs beat the Falcons 67-54 to clinch a spot in the sub-state championship game Saturday.

COUNCIL GROVE — With tears streaming down his cheeks, Rock Creek guard Dawson Zenger opened his Notes app and began writing a letter.

“Dear Dawson,” Zenger typed from the Royal Valley High School locker room after last year’s 68-57 loss to St. Mary’s in the sub-state semifinals. “Work every day. Every day. No matter how much you hurt or want to text your girls or play PS4, get in the gym or weight room every day and work your (behind) off.

“This feeling sucks. Losing sucks. Get to Hutch next year and win the whole thing.”

On Friday — exactly one year since Zenger’s letter — the Mustangs celebrated a 67-54 sub-state semifinal win over Riley County at Council Grove High School. The Falcons contained Zenger until they had to switch out of their box-and-one defense late. Then he scored 18 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, and on his way to the locker room after the buzzer, he released his sub-state demons with a primal yell audible from every corner of Council Grove’s gym.

“LET’S GO!”

“It’s a relief,” Zenger said after his adrenaline had worn off. “Last year we lost, and all of us were really motivated to come in (during) the offseason and get to work. Just getting that monkey off our back is huge.”

For the first 23 minutes of Friday’s game, Falcons head coach Bobby Webster’s Zenger-centric defense served its purpose. Zenger sat on seven points with just over a minute to play in the third quarter. He hadn’t scored since 1:52 remained in the first, and Riley County led 41-38.

Then Zenger sank a 3-pointer from the left wing to tie the game. And once the skies opened for the 6-foot-1 senior, his scoring drought quickly morphed into a scoring monsoon.

Zenger scored 23 of the Mustangs’ (19-2) final 29 points while showcasing his offensive versatility. The game-tying 3-pointer that broke his scoring drought showed why defenses can’t goad him into shooting jump shots. The layup he scored after blowing past the Falcons’ (9-9) defense with 7:10 to play highlighted his quickness and gave the Mustangs a 48-41 lead. And the back-door layup Zenger finished off Brooks Whaley’s assist demonstrated that even face-guarding isn’t a fool-proof strategy against Rock Creek’s leading scorer.

Webster learned the hazards of defending Zenger long ago. Webster has coached against Zenger since the Rock Creek star was in third grade. And each time the Mustangs appear on Webster’s schedule, he employs a box-and-one.

The problem with that strategy, however, is that it yields open looks to Zenger’s teammates. The Mustangs missed several quality shots in the first half because, as head coach Jim Johnston said, “We were a little too hyped up.” But thanks to shooters like Mason Sturdy and Renun Blount, who made four 3-pointers between them, Rock Creek eventually forced the Falcons to play standard man-to-man.

“Letting your teammates ball,” Zenger said when asked how to disrupt Webster’s game plan. “Letting them go to work. We were getting open looks in the first half, they just weren’t falling. We were playing tight.”

Zenger attributed the Mustangs’ uneasy first half to last year’s painful memories. While last year’s early postseason exit motivated the Mustangs on Friday, it also triggered anxiety.

But now that they’ve have exercised their pesky, metaphorical monkey, they can play with uncluttered minds. Rock Creek has replaced worries of repeating last season’s disappointment with the excitement of Saturday’s sub-state title game against St. Marys, which escaped with a 54-53 win over Osage City in the second semifinal Friday night.

When Zenger finished typing his letter a year ago, he signed it “sub-state DZ”. On Saturday, he hopes to add the word “champion” to that signature.

“It was the worst feeling in the world,” Zenger said of last year’s low point. “But I’ve gotten better mentally or physically every day (since).”