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Column: When success spoils success

DEKALB – The spoils of success sometimes multiply the pangs of disappointment.

Tony Dunlap essentially voiced that sentiment during the press conference in the bowels of NIU's Convocation Center after Tuesday's loss to Mooseheart in the Class 1A DeKalb Supersectional.

"The bad thing is that we are at a school where getting to a supersectional isn't good enough," said Dunlap, in his usual matter-of-fact tone.

He wasn't bashing his Cougars club that had just lost 59-41 to a Mooseheart team that featured players who stood out in the DeKalb skyline as much as the eight dorm towers and NIU's pencil-shaped student center.

The players had the scars to prove that effort wasn't the issue.

Look at senior Dalton Shaner's lip, which was split sometime late in the third quarter. He spent the rest of the game running to the sideline during dead balls to wipe off his mouth. He also kept his hand to his mouth a lot, in hopes of hiding any sign of blood to avoid being removed from the game.

Look at fellow senior Skylar Paulson's knees. There can't be much skin left there, either, as the McKendree University-bound football player has a knack for diving and falling and plowing his way to the floor multiple times throughout every game.

No, Tuesday's loss wasn't about effort, and there's no shame about going 26-5, winning the NUIC West and going to the supersectional for the fourth time in 7 years.

The difference being that the last two supersectional trips have concluded with victories and trips to state. That's two state trophies in 5 years.

Not adding another trophy is a bummer for Dunlap, and for guys like Shaner and Paulson who have bled for the Cougars.

"We didn't start like a team that was mentally prepared," Dunlap said. "I thought we'd have the experience to handle the pressure."

There's a reason that Dunlap's teams always seem to be in the big games in March.

One of them is Dunlap. Another reason is an experienced group of assistants. The other is that every time a Shaner or Paulson or Ty Hartman or Tony Dunlap Jr. or Justin Witt leaves, the next set of stars step in.

Tuesday was the end of the Shaner era, one that featured nifty layups, dramatic 3s and plenty of style. And, it was the end of the Paulson era that featured grit, defense and unquestioned heart.

But, Tuesday was also a glimpse of the future.

There was Blake Janssen, a 6-foot-5 sophomore center. He muscled around Mooseheart's 7-1 center, Akim Nyang.

Janssen had his moments, and a few he'd like to forget – like the missed open layup at the buzzer before half. But, those are the moments he'll learn from.

The same goes for Brighton Haverland, a raw, 6-4 freshman, who missed some bunnies like Janssen, but settled in during the second half. Haverland finished with seven points and six rebounds.

"I was really, really nervous before the game," Haverland said. "Their height was intimidating, and they were really fast.

"But, after I got out there, I started to realize that I could get my shot up, and that it was still the same game. It was intimidating all year for me being a freshman playing against good teams, but I've learned a lot from it."

That was the same thing Dunlap said in his parting words before heading back out to the gym to watch the 2A supersectional game.

He was happy with how a kid like Haverland responded to adversity, and his thoughts on the future were simple.

"That's the idea," Dunlap said. "You take something from this and get better."

That's what a successful program builds on, and that's what makes just getting to the supersectional not quite good enough for its players and coaches.

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