SOLON — It’s not Linn-Mar impressive, but it’s not too far from it.
The Solon Spartans have been in a substate final boys’ basketball game nine years in a row. Tonight’s opponent is defending Class 3A state champion Mount Pleasant at 7 at Iowa City West.
Keep in mind, Solon hasn’t won all nine of these substate finals. That’s what makes Linn-Mar’s recently ended record string of nine straight state tournament appearances so very impressive.
But this streak isn’t anything to pooh-pooh, either.
“I’ve been very blessed to have good players,” said Solon Coach Brad Randall. “You don’t really realize it as a young coach, but the joy is in getting better as the season goes along. We always seem to have risen to the occasion at the end of the year.
“It’s kind of like college football teams that go to bowl games every year. Once you get that (string) started, the kids expect it and they’re calmer on the big stage. We’re real proud of it.”
Randall led Solon to Des Moines in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010, with a 2A championship in 2009, a runner-up finish in 2010 and a third-place finish in 2008. The Spartans have been a 3A team the last two seasons with substate losses to Dubuque Wahlert and Davenport Assumption.
Randall feels this time around his team might have a better chance to compete, though Mount Pleasant will be formidable with an 18-5 record and has one of the better big men in 3A in Ottumwa transfer Faith Pope. Solon (19-4) survived the rigors of the Wamac Conference East Division pretty well, all things considered.
That’s where its four losses came, including two to unbeaten 4A substate final qualifier Western Dubuque. Solon has the height to combat Pope in 6-foot-7 Ryan Kunkel and 6-5 Joe Weeks, the team’s leading scorer and four-year varsity regular who has committed to play Juco ball next season at Kirkwood Community College.
“We’re excited about it,” Randall said. “(Mount Pleasant) is a good basketball team, but we feel up to the task with this team.”
In other 3A substate finals tonight, Marion hopes to continue its unexpected postseason run when it plays Davenport Assumption (17-6) at Clinton. Despite the absence of leading scorer Tyler Gunderson (suspension), the Indians (12-11) beat Center Point-Urbana and Anamosa to win their district.
All of Assumption’s losses have come to 4A schools.
Top-ranked Vinton-Shellsburg (23-0) hopes to qualify for state for the first time since 1996 when it plays Crestwood (17-5) tonight at Cedar Falls. Forward Grant Sagan went over 1,000 career points late in the regular season. Guard Max Griffith is hitting an amazing 52 percent from 3-point land.