The Dixon Dukes will be the first to admit they didn't put their best foot forward the last time they faced the Mendota Trojans.
It was a game that was rescheduled twice because of inclement weather, and when the game finally did roll around, the Dukes had bigger things on their minds – like being in the hunt for a NIB-12 West title.
It was a string of four games in 9 days for Dixon, and that Thursday matchup on Jan. 30 was a 55-52 Mendota win at home.
But this time around, the matchup is for all the marbles in the 3A LaSalle-Peru Regional final … and the Dukes (22-6) are ready to show what they're really capable of.
"We're really eager to see them again," Dixon junior guard Laron Carr said. "We played bad the last time, and we still only lost by three. If we play better defense, and take care of the ball and move it around better on offense, I think we can have a lot more success."
Coach Jason Mead also cited turnovers as one of the big differences in that first meeting, and said the Dukes need to do a better job of boxing out and controlling the boards.
"Last time, they killed us with their offensive rebounding, and their ability to drive to the rim," Mead said. "If we want to win a regional title, we have to make their dribble penetrators not as comfortable, limit our live-ball turnovers that led to layups for them last time, and rebound hard."
Unlike some coaches, who prefer to keep the big picture out of their players' heads, Mead employs the opposite strategy. The Dukes haven't won a regional championship since 1986, but instead of hanging that around their necks like an albatross, Mead has made sure his guys know exactly what's at stake.
"It's been in their minds since I've been here; we look at that board [on the gym wall] every day," Mead said. "I'm not big on hiding history; it happened, and we might as well embrace it.
"Plus, I think it's a lot more fun to think, 'Wow, it's been 28 years, and we've got a chance to do it.'"
It's as good a chance as the Dukes could ask for. The opponent is evenly matched with them, and the loss back in January has forced Mead and his coaching staff to look at different ways of attacking the Trojans' 1-3-1 zone.
Mead readily admitted his game plan was ineffective in that first meeting, and he's gone back to the drawing board to scheme for this matchup.
The key will be withstanding Mendota's inevitable runs. Mead said the Trojans (20-8) play with a lot of emotion, and because of that, they'll go on big runs … but also allow big runs by their opponents. Their big run came early in the first meeting, as they led by eight right out of the gate and forced the Dukes to play catch-up the entire game.
Mead believes that flat start is but a distant memory, and his players know they can't let an early deficit – or lead, for that matter – get into their heads.
"We know they're going to go on their runs, and we can't let it get to us," Carr said. "We just have to keep our heads up, focus on getting stops and answering on offense. We have to make sure we don't put our heads down, just work hard the whole game and keep fighting until the end."
Mendota has four guards – James Carroll, Ryan Reeder, Mark Prescott and Joe LaShonse – who like to get into the lane and create for themselves our their teammates. And while they can all score from the perimeter, they're more interested in driving to the basket and probing the interior of the defense.
Dixon, meanwhile, counters that by balancing the floor. Carr, Matt Coffey and Cal Jarrett are all effective shooters, as is 6-foot-7 post Isaiah Roby, but Jarrett, Roby and Kyle LeBlanc can also pour in a lot of points from the paint.
The bench also plays a key role for the Dukes, as reserves like Nate Gascoigne, Michael Conley and Riley Mehrens can play quality minutes so Dixon doesn't miss a beat when the starters need a breather.
"The fun part of sports is that it doesn't matter who the better team is, but who the better team is on that particular night," Mead said. "They've got their strengths, and we've got some strengths too, and whoever executes better on Friday night is going to be the regional champion."
That's a feeling Carr and his teammates relish the chance to play for … and a plaque they're determined to bring back to Dixon.
"It means a lot to us; we've worked so hard to get to this point, and now it's time to finish it off," Carr said. "This is a big deal for us, and we want to come out and play like the hungrier team, and work as hard as we can from the start to the finish to bring home that regional title."
Class 3A LaSalle-Peru Regional final
Dixon (22-6) vs. Mendota (20-8)
When: 7 p.m. today
At stake: Winner advances to the 3A Peoria Sectional, to play the Peoria Manual Regional winner at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Bradley University
FYI: Dixon hasn't won an regional championship since 1986. … The Dukes come in with their third 20-win season in program history, and first since 1967. … Mendota won the 3A Rock Falls Regional title last year, before losing to Limestone in the Peoria Sectional semifinals.