NEENAH — The Neenah boys basketball team has been to 25 state tournaments but the Rockets have not won a tournament game since 1988.
Friday, the Rockets look to end that drought on their 26th trip when they play 2013 state runnerup Mukwonago at about 8:30 p.m.
While Neenah hasn’t tasted success at the state tournament in quite a while, it has reached Madison in 2010 and 2000, both times losing right away.
This year, Neenah (25-1) is shooting for more success. The Rockets are involved in a bracket that not only includes Mukwonago (18-8), but also two-time defending state champion Germantown (24-2) and 2013 semifinalist Milwaukee King (24-2), which has won five state titles, the last coming in 2004.
The Rockets, though, aren’t getting carried away with the thought of winning a state title. Instead, it’s one game at a time and enjoy the moment.
"It's amazing,” 6-10 junior center Matt Heldt said. “This is what every kid dreams about. As a little kid in your backyard; going to state, playing at the Kohl Center in front of everybody and being on TV and stuff. There's a lot of excitement on our team. Really, we can't wait to go down to Madison."
Neenah's run to the state tournament almost ended in a sectional semifinal to Stevens Point. In a matchup of one-loss teams the Rockets trailed by 15 points at half.
If Neenah goes on to win the state title, it might be because of what happened in the second half. While many teams would’ve folded, the Fox Valley Association champion Rockets decided this wasn’t over and a run could be made.
Neenah made a run and ended up with a 59-56 win.
"At that point some teams quit, some teams kind of come out and hang their heads a lilttle bit,” Neenah coach Scott Bork said. “We're very fortunate we have some great seniors, some leadership that came out and said, 'No, we're not done, we can get through this, we can fight through it and find a way to get it done.' The kids that needed to step up did."
That would be point guard Adam Pohlman and Heldt. The all-conference performers are a big reason why the Rockets are where they are.
Pohlman talked about the second half against Point, saying, "We learned from it. To come back in the second half and have the crowd behind us was wonderful. We got to come out a little better than that (Friday)."
Playing in the Kohl Center in front of a big crowd, it would seem Neenah would have no issue being ready. When asked this week about winning a gold ball, though, the Rockets didn’t want to talk about it.
The only goal in mind is beating Mukwonago. If that happens, then the gold ball discussion can start.
"It'd mean a lot to bring home a state championship, I'll say that; first one in a long time,” Pohlman said. “I know that tradition and legacy in Neenah is pretty big."
"All our goals would be accomplished,” Heldt said. “Our community gives full support. They would love to see that. It'd be huge to restore the tradition."
Two more wins and the tradition will be restored.
Follow Doug Ritchay on Twitter @dougritchay