MENDOTA — On the first day of practice, Mendota boys basketball coach Jan Thompson walked into the gym and told his team to head to the classroom of assistant coach Brian Blumhorst.
Confused and a little perplexed, every player in the Mendota boys basketball program — freshmen to seniors — marched to Blumhorst’s classroom, unsure of what the fifth-year Trojan coach had planned.
Instead of shooting baskets and running drills, the first thing Thompson did on the first day of practice was have everyone in the program watch the entire fourth quarter of the 2012 Class 2A Plano Regional championship, which MHS lost 60-54 to Plano.
“I thought it was an amazing idea and something I probably never would’ve thought of,” said MHS senior Trae Blumhorst, a NewsTribune First-Team All-Area player. “It really was a great idea.”
After watching the heart-breaking finale to the 2012 season, Thompson asked his players what they needed to do so that it wouldn’t happen again.
“Evan Carroll was the first who stepped up and said, ‘We’ve got to hit free throws,’” Thompson recalls. “And then a couple of the other guys chimed in and said, ‘Coach, that’s never going to happen again.’
“I remember thinking right then, ‘We have guys stepping up and saying this isn’t going to happen again. That’s big because before we’d have guys just sit there and not say anything.’ It made me feel like, ‘Oooo, we have a fighting chance this year.’”
It helped unify, rally and remind his senior-laden squad.
“When you lose the regional championship, you’re all fired up, want to get going in the offseason and go into the gym the next day to start working, but that feeling fades away over time,” Trae Blumhorst said. “But I think that really got us centered on what we had to do.”
Guided by Thompson, this season Mendota advanced to the Oregon Tip-Off Tournament title game, won the program’s first Colmone Classic and won a Class 3A regional in its first season in 3A, all while winning the most games by any MHS team since 1995-96.
All of it came after the first-day film session, a feeling Thompson never wanted his team to forget.
For all he did this season, Thompson is the 2012-13 NewsTribune Boys Basketball Coach of the Year.
“Coach is really fiery and will really motivate you,” MHS senior Jon Gehm said. “He is very positive. If you miss a couple of shots, he will tell you to keep shooting.”
With four senior starters returning this year, the Trojans won right from the start.
Without a deep playoff football run, Thompson had his entire team from the first day of practice, which allowed the Trojans to build cohesiveness heading to the season-opening Oregon tournament.
After the Trojans beat Byron and eventually won their pool, MHS fell in the title game.
However, Mendota rode the momentum into the Colmone Classic, where despite being the No. 3 seed, the Trojans beat St. Bede to win their pool and Fieldcrest to win the title.
“I thought Colmone was huge,” Trae Blumhorst said. “I think it was the first time I’ve ever really won a championship, and to do it with those guys and our fans was great. I remember coach with his (new-born son) taking a picture with the trophy. It was amazing.”
However, then reality set in for MHS.
In the difficult and bruising Big Northern Conference West Division, the Trojans struggled and finished 3-9 heading into the postseason.
“I was excited to join the Big Northern just because I knew our kids were going to have to realize how much harder they had to work in order to compete at that level,” Thompson said. “This year’s group really saw that and said, ‘Hey, we need to bring it.’”
The Trojans parlayed their experience in the postseason, where despite being a No. 4 regional seed and one of the smallest 3A teams enrollment-wise, MHS beat Sterling then upset top-seeded Rock Falls at Rock Falls before it defeated La Salle-Peru to claim the program’s first regional since 1999.
“We knew L-P was going to be a big game and I knew (2012-13 NT Boys Basketball Player of the Year) Jens Soderholm was going to be a ton,” Thompson said. “But we also knew we had a size advantage, so we told the guys we didn’t have to play a perfect game just as long as we played a good game and Soderholm didn’t go off. Our guys really took a hold of that, and I think they already believed pretty big at that point that after beating Rock Falls, winning the regional was a definite, realistic goal.”
The Trojans’ season ended with a sectional semifinal loss to Limestone — which finished third in 3A — but this season Mendota never lost to a NewsTribune area-team as it went 7-0.
“I think before the season we all knew we could do it, and coach knew, too,” Gehm said. “He kept calling us into his office every week talking about how excited he was for the season. We all knew we could do what we did.”
Jared Bell can be reached at 220-6938, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.