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THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Long wait was worth it for Post Falls boys

| December 24, 2020 1:30 AM

They were the last team to play during the 2019-20 season.

And, as it turned out, the Post Falls Trojans were one of the last high school boys basketball teams to open their season in 2020-21.

Only Kootenai, which has pushed the start of its winter sports seasons back to January of 2021, has yet to begin.

Post Falls, which began practice on the first scheduled day for boys basketball (Nov. 13), finally got underway last Thursday (Dec. 17), at the Ridley's Christmas Tournament at Middleton High.

That's a long time to wait, especially for an experienced team with 10 seniors.

"I had to make practices grueling so they never got tired playing against each other," said Mike McLean, in his 14th season as coach of the Trojans. "We had to challenge them. Our practices were hard, physically demanding. Everything was competitive, and everyone was challenged differently."

POST FALLS won the tourney, going 3-0 and beating host Middleton in the title game.

So that was one victory. The other was just playing. Many of the kids hadn't been in a competitive game since the state tourney last March.

"I have not seen my players look this happy the entire school year," McLean said Thursday, after Post Falls' 44-41 victory over Pocatello in its first game. "Because they now have a sense of normalcy. I don't think people understand the psychological effect it has on young people. It’s the happiest I've seen our guys since the state tournament

"It's great to play basketball. Great for their mental health. It's not like college, you don’t get a do-over. You only get four years. It was like we’re back having fun, getting to play someone, and doing things. As a coach and parent (his middle son, Caden, is a senior guard on the Trojans), it was nice to see them back to being themselves."

Not just playing basketball. Like other coaches taking their teams on the road, McLean likes to stop at college campuses along the way. On this trip, it was Eastern Oregon in La Grande. On other trips, the stop might be at Idaho State. Or Montana Tech. Or College of Idaho. Or Pacific Lutheran, in Tacoma. Or Boise State.

"Walking around a college campus, kids are bright eyed," McLean said. Some might be interested in playing basketball at that school. Or football. Or some other sport. Or just attending as a student.

"We like to give them a flavor of smaller schools vs. bigger schools," McLean said. "When they talk to folks at the school, they're asking majors instead of winning percentage. When we can take these kids on a campus, its a great learning tool."

LAKE CITY was on the same trip, though the Timberwolves played four games instead of three.

Lake City added a game in Moscow on Wednesday night, stayed the night in Lewiston, then continued on to Middleton for an evening game on Thursday.

The T-Wolves beat Moscow, won its tourney opener, then lost in the semifinals and third-place game. Had Lake City won in the semis, it would have faced Post Falls in an all-Inland Empire League final.

"You wanted the toughest tests you can get," Lake City coach Jim Winger said. "These kids get so pumped up and cheer on the bench."

That was noticeable in Lake City's season opener at Lakeland. Twice, sophomore Kolton Mitchell was fouled while hitting a 3-pointer near the T-Wolf bench. Twice, several T-Wolf players came off the bench to pick their teammate up off the floor.

"I was so super impressed with our energy and our enthusiasm; it’s just really impressive," Winger said. "That helps you in normal years, and with the situation were in now (with no crowd, or just a few parents), that’s a big boost."

POST FALLS had hoped to return this year to the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas, to take on some of the top teams in the West. The Trojans were planning to play in the Platinum Division, for the best teams in the tournament, just like they did in 2017 when Jake Pfennigs was a senior.

But McLean knew as early as last summer that tournament probably wasn't going to happen. So ...

"We were scrambling," he said.

Post Falls was in the Middleton tourney, but it was pushed back a week, and the field changed when some of the Boise-area schools couldn't play yet because of COVID-19 restrictions.

McLean was able to get into the East Idaho Holiday Tournament next week, a 24-team, three-pool event with mostly eastern Idaho teams but also one from Utah and one from Wyoming.

"I felt it was my responsibility to get our kids the best schedule they can play," McLean said.

Lake City and Coeur d'Alene are also in this tournaments. All are in different pools, so they won't face each other down there.

(And girls teams from Coeur d'Alene, Lake City and Post Falls will be down in eastern Idaho early next week for three games each).

McLean added a game at Pocatello on New Year's Eve morning, so Post Falls is slated to play four games in four days next week.

The Trojans wanted to stay longer.

"We wanted to play on New Year's Day," McLean said. "We wanted to play six games (in six days, which is something Post Falls did several years ago), but couldn't get anybody to play us. If you ask our guys, we would play as many games as we could."

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at Follow him on Twitter @CdAPressSports.