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Caleb Bleich

Caleb Bleich goes up for a shot in a game earlier this season.  Caleb and his teammates are preparing for basketball regionals, which begin Feb. 3.

GIBSON CITY - It’s time.

The eighth grade boys basketball team is locked and loaded for another run at the state championship that eluded them a season ago as seventh graders, when the team lost a lead and fell in the semifinal game after going 23-0 leading up to it.

After dominating their third place game a week later, the team walked off the court with their heads held high and one goal on their mind: to “do it again.”

The group has since gone undefeated in football, winning their third league championship together with ease, watched their female classmates take third in basketball with a 25-1 finish, and topped it off with a second straight undefeated regular season at 21-0, becoming the first team since the consolidation of GCMS to have accomplished such a feat.

And now, the toughest part of their journey begins, with six games against the state’s best teams standing between them and the final piece missing from their decorated middle school careers—a state championship.

The team will take on Clifton Nash on Tuesday, Feb. 3 against the winner of PBL and Hoopeston.

Sports Editor Josh Hohulin caught up with coach Mark Berry to talk about the season and get a preview of the postseason. Here were his thoughts on the team and the road ahead.

What's different about the team this year versus last year?

I think that we have gotten better defensively. Our half-court defense has been really good all year. They were a good defensive team last year too, but I think the quality of competition this year has been better overall and has forced us to be better on the defensive end. We have done a good job converting defense to offense and scoring off our defense. Another difference is our improvement against zone defenses. We have seen a lot of zone this year and we have generally improved at attacking it. In general, we have had natural improvement skill-wise from seventh grade to eighth grade but still rely on the aspects that were key last year, excelling at offense, defense and rebounding.

What's the mindset of the guys going into postseason? They've been here before. What is it like for them going back? Any way they want to attack things differently?

I think the guys are ready for the postseason and see it as a chance to achieve their final accomplishment as middle school players, which would be winning the state championship. They have done everything else there is to as a middle school team. We have done a great job at stepping up and playing well against tough competition all season and they understand that this road is much tougher this year as compared to last year. There are a lot of excellent teams in our regional and if we are fortunate enough to advance, we are going into a super-tough sectional. They are looking forward to the challenge and realize that their best play and effort will be necessary to advance this year. We have a long layoff before the regional starts and we need to have a great mindset to use our practice time wisely. We might make some adjustments, but it is much more important to be at the top of our game with the things we do well.

Cissna Park gave the Falcons the biggest run this season. Are they in a different league?

They are in class 1A, we are in class 3A. The wins against them were nice wins, but the biggest benefit in them was having state-caliber type games during the regular season. These players know they can beat great opponents, no matter their size. Our main focus is always on how we play. If we play our best, we feel we can compete with anyone.

Are there any opponents or things fans should keep an eye out for?

Everyone needs to realize that the road this year is tougher. Any of our future opponents is capable of knocking us off. We will need three wins to get back to state and six to win it. Just being good won't be enough against the teams we will face. We will need to be great every night. I think our guys like the challenge of being great and having gone through the process last year should help. In the end, no matter what happens, I hope our fans are proud of what this team has accomplished in their middle school careers and are excited about their futures in high school.

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