For the second straight season, Brainerd area boys basketball fans won't have a horse in the race known as the Minnesota State High School League state tournament.
Not since Brainerd's memorable 2013 run has the area had someone to cheer.
This season, however, there is a team lakes area fans may want to put their hat in the ring with. It might be the right choice as well.
Class 4A's top-ranked, top-seeded and the state's only unbeaten team Champlin Park Rebels have a local connection.
Rebels head coach Mark Tuchscherer is a 1998 Brainerd High School graduate and has manned the Rebels' helm for nine seasons. He's hoping his hometown will be cheering for his new program.
"I'm a proud Warrior," said Tuchscherer. "Both my brothers went there and played basketball and tennis. My parents are retired teachers from the district. They both still live up there. I get up there as much as I can for some fishing and boating."
This is Tuchscherer's ninth season as Champlin's head coach. The Rebels were the preseason No. 4 in Class 4A behind Apple Valley, Cretin-Derham Hall and Hopkins. Then the Rebels picked off all three in succession starting with a 90-86 win over Hopkins Nov. 29. They clipped C-DH 65-62 Dec. 13 and handed Apple Valley its first loss of the season 79-74 Dec. 27. Since that victory, Champlin Park has been the top-ranked team cruising to 29-0 record.
The Rebels will open against St. Francis, which won Section 7. The state quarterfinal game will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Target Center.
"Our confidence is unbelievable," said Tuchscherer. "We try to instill that in the players, but they have it in themselves, too. They came into this season with it. We did our preseason goals the long- and the short-term ones and they just skipped over all the rest and went right to finishing unbeaten and winning the state title. They skipped right to that. They figured if we do that all the rest would happen along the way; stuff like conference and section championships.
"I've never had a team like that, who spoke up during our preseason meeting, with one voice and one vision. Not only did they want to do well, but they wanted to be champions."
Champlin Park outscored opponents by 32.2 points per game and shot 64 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from 3-point.
The Rebels own an assist-to-turnover ratio of 20.5-7.5 and averaged 87.2 points per game.
Tuchscherer said the Rebels like to play an up-tempo style of basketball with lots of defensive pressure.
The Rebels are led by 6-foot-3 senior guard JT Gibson, the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year and first team all-Metro selection. He is also a Mr. Basketball finalist. Gibson enters the state tournament with 530 points, 132 assists, 101 rebounds, 74 steals and 14 blocked shots. He became the school's all-time leading scorer and will play next year at Nebraska-Omaha.
Senior Jeremy Johnson is a 6-4 guard, who won the Class 2A high jump last year. Johnson totaled 389 points, 111 rebounds, 76 assists, 48 steals and 19 blocked shots.
Marty Hill is a 6-5 senior guard who is second on the team with 443 points and 165 rebounds. He added 80 assists, 57 steals and 11 blocked shots.
Senior Jonathan Johnson has already accepted a scholarship for track and field at the University of Minnesota.
"We start three seniors and two sophomores and our bench is made up of seniors also," Tuchscherer said. "Those guys all have bright futures in their lives whether it's Johnson going to the U of M for track, senior Datrice Mulsumo is going to play football next season at Southwest Minnesota State. Then you have our three senior starters, we call them the triplets, and it's funny because two of them actually share a birthday. They all have big-time opportunities in basketball.
"JT is our main leader. He's just an outstanding player. A great leader. We had an optional shootaround at 10 a.m. (Monday) He left at 1:30 p.m. and then we had practice at 3. He has put in the time, not only during the season, but in the offseason."
Sophomores McKinley Wright and Theo John round out the Rebels' starting roster. Wright, a 6-foot guard, led Champlin in rebounding with 171 boards. He added 368 points, 159 assists and 65 steals.
John is a 6-8 forward, who added 239 points, 157 rebounds, 98 blocked shots and 29 assists.
"We never really talk about stats, but as we were entering them into the system because we knew people would want them, they were impressive," Tuchscherer said. "Then you think about it; 18 of our 26 regular-season games were blowouts. So 18 of our games maybe they played half the game. That affects your stats. Those guys were playing half games and still getting those stats.
"Then you throw in a 6-0 sophomore guard who is getting all those rebounds. That's just the type of player McKinley is. He's tough and he can jump."
Tuchscherer was an assistant coach in 2009 when the Rebels came to Brainerd and knocked off his hometown Warriors. Champlin's head coach then was Little Falls High School graduate Ryan Laager, who is now the executive director of curriculum and secondary education in Stillwater.
Tuchscherer was named the Warrior Athlete of the Year in 1998 and still holds the top state boys tennis finish for a Brainerd athlete when he and J.J. Vold finished fourth in the doubles competition.
This is Champlin Park's third state tournament appearance and first since 2010. The other came in 2005.
"It's going to take a ton to win this thing," said Tuchscherer. "There are so many great teams playing their best basketball of the season come March. We need to be one of those teams playing our best to beat the likes of Hopkins and Apple Valley. Shakopee and Roseville are on our half of the bracket and they're outstanding. First and foremost we need to focus on St. Francis, which will be a nice test for us, too."
And so why should lakes area fans be cheering for Champlin?
"Honestly, this is a special team," said Tuchscherer. "These guys are so battle-tested. They've been tested their whole lives. They've played in huge games in the summer against some of the best competition in the country. They've played in front of big crowds so I don't see that stuff getting to them.
"They love the pressure. They want the pressure. I can throw out every cliche to describe these guys and they would all be true. They are unselfish and they have bought into the system. They just want to win."