What a difference a year makes.

Walking off the court in Rawlins last March, defeated, sad and scratching his head, Lee Toldson wondered aloud how his team wasn’t one of the last four standing in the 3A East?

They had all of the ingredients. A young, hard-working team, grit and heart.

This season, they still have that mix, but there’s no stat for leadership. And you certainly can’t put a value on heart.

That team had those qualities, too, but DHS has been waiting for this crop to take over.

Since their middle school days, Ty Larson, Eric Jamerman and Co., have been in the back of the minds of nearly everyone at the high school athletics department. When I came here more than four years ago, it was always, “Wait until you see this group we have coming up.”

Whether it was on the football field, the track or the court, this junior class has been coveted.

After a shocking 51-48 loss to eventual 3A East champion Wheatland Friday night, there was a collective nervousness amongst the Douglas faithful. This team has come too far to not make it to the state tournament was the overwhelming sentiment.

I can be included in that group.

On Friday, the team was out of sync from the tip. Aside from Jamerman’s lights-out 19-point performance, the team was just not feeding off him. Mainly, the ultimate blame fell on the shoulders of Larson. And the biggest finger pointed at the junior was his own.

One turnover after another, Larson was finding nothing but Bulldogs in his usual clear path to the hoop. He wasn’t driving the lane, he wasn’t taking wide-open shots and he certainly wasn’t the Ty Larson of old.

He didn’t even look like himself. He looked angry and out of control, sometimes slapping his hands in frustration at mid-court. His four-point, six turnover performance was a career low, prompting the team captain to say, “This was the worst game of my life.”

It was in many ways, but in the end, it ultimately brought this squad even closer together.

Larson was out of sorts for a good reason. He has walking pneumonia and bronchitis to go along with an upset stomach that sent him to the trash can twice Saturday morning before the biggest game of his life.

But did that stand in his way? No way.

What you didn’t know is Larson has been sick all week. He was ordered to take it easy after a trip to the doctor. Larson, take it easy? Not happening.

The fiery competitor’s rest was smacking the alarm clock before the sun came up every day to go get extra work in the gym. That was his own practice. Then his normal team workouts followed after school, including the normal mind work Larson does on a nightly basis at home.

Admittedly, I was nervous for this team Saturday. So was Toldson. It wasn’t that we didn’t have faith, it was more of the anything-can-happen factor. Not to mention the Cats were facing the defending state champion Buffalo Bison, a team that has had Douglas’ number.

Buffalo knows how to win in the postseason. They have proven that. Douglas, not so much. And after Larson’s performance Friday, one wondered if  he could get back to himself in less than 24 hours?

What a difference 14 hours makes.

Sick to his stomach and out of breath, Larson led his Bearcats past Buffalo. And it wasn’t even close.

He wasn’t the leading scorer — Jamerman once again held that distinction — but there was no doubt who the leader was that day. Only a few hours after sending out text messages to all of his teammates and coaches, saying the Wheatland loss was on his shoulders and vowing that will never happen again, Larson’s words were prophetic.

Basically, he put his money where his mouth was, and now the Bearcats are three wins away from the fourth state championship in school history and the first since 2002.

Douglas, you have been waiting for this class to blossom. Well, here they are, and I wouldn’t bet against them.

This group of juniors — Tyrel Leman, Thomas Bolinger, Trenton Williams, Mark Vandeventer, Jamerman and Larson — have dreamed about this day since they were kids, playing on traveling teams and blowing up the scoreboard at Douglas Middle School.

Only Jamerman has touched foot on the Casper Events Center floor. Now, it’s everyone’s turn.

Enjoy it fellas, you deserve it.

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