A meeting with Meyer

The Helias Crusaders going to the Final Four seemed unlikely in early February.

The Crusaders were in Funky Town.

And not in the good, fun, funky way.

"With about three or four weeks left in the season, we went into a pretty big funk," Helias coach Josh Buffington said. "We weren't playing very good basketball. At times, we were still winning, but we were taking a few steps back on the court.

"Some of our kids, their daubers were down, their confidence was down. We had several team meetings and tried to hammer some things out."

Then came the meeting that helped change everything.

Enter Don Meyer.

"It was early February and it was perfect timing," Buffington said. "He not only spoke to the community, but we were very fortunate to have him come into our locker room and speak to our team. It was an intimate moment for our team.

"That really re-focused us. I think that was the turning point in our season, we really dialed it in after that. That's when I really thought we had a chance to make a run."

Wait, Don who?

Meyer coached college basketball for 37 years, mostly at the NAIA level. He worked at three schools, Hamline, Lipscomb, Northern State, and won 923 games, sixth on the all-time list.

He's just ahead of three guys you might have heard of --- Bobby Knight, Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp.

"Coach Meyer is a team first, individual second kind of guy," Buffington said. "He always has been, he always will be. His message from a basketball standpoint, both offensively and defensively, is keep it simple and play inside-out.

"That's exactly what we try to do. It was really a great refresher from a strategic standpoint."

Buffington used this Meyer quote on the team's camp t-shirts last summer, and used the same quote on this week's Final Four t-shirts:

"Successful programs consist of people working hard, working together, while never worrying about who gets the credit."

But this meeting in early February was about a lot more than basketball, it was about life. And Meyer's story is certainly one of inspiration, even though much of it is sad inspiration.

Meyer, now 69, was involved in a car crash on Sept. 5, 2008. His lower left leg had to be amputated below the knee due to injuries sustained in the crash.

During the surgery, which also included some procedures on his midsection, doctors discovered cancer in his liver and bowels.

"He's in the final stages of his life, but he keeps going," said Buffington, who first met Meyer in 1996 at a basketball camp in Tennessee.

A deeply spiritual man, Meyer still travels the country giving motivational speeches. In 2009, he was awarded the Jimmy V (Jim Valvano) Award for Perseverance.

"He's a priority guy --- faith, family and athletics, in that order. That's how he lives his life," Buffington said. "That's his message.

"He's just an amazing man."



Helias got to this point.

What's next for the seventh-ranked Crusaders (22-7) is a date with the top-ranked and defending state champion Republic Tigers (25-4) in the Class 4 semifinals at 7:45 p.m. Friday at Mizzou Arena.

"They're a very good basketball team with a lot of leadership and experience," Buffington said. "They've been there, done that."

Experience? Of the 10 players listed on the roster, Republic has one junior and nine seniors. That would be considered experienced.

The Tigers' losses were to Nixa and Waynesville (both twice), a pair of Class 5 schools. For more perspective, here's a bit more on those teams:

Nixa was a district champion, losing a three-point decision Willard in the sectionals; Willard then lost a narrow three-point decision in the quarterfinals to top-ranked Columbia Hickman --- a team back in the Final Four that knocked out Waynesville by one point in the sectionals.

In other words, those are four quality losses.

"'We have a ton of film on Republic, and it's just very impressive how they play the game of basketball," Buffington said.

While the Tigers come at you with waves of seniors, the leader of the pack may be 6-4 senior Cody Geiger, who scored 18 points in Saturday's 57-44 quarterfinal win over Borgia. In last year's state championship game, a 54-51 win over Normandy, Geiger totaled 20 points and 10 rebounds.

"He's an inside-out kid who can just flat-out score," Buffington said. "But our guys are ready for the challenge; we feel like we can beat them, but we also know we're going to have to play four, solid quarters of basketball to do it."

This is Helias' fifth trip to the Final Four --- they've finished third three times, fourth once --- and the school's first since 2009.

That was Buffington's first year with the Crusaders, a senior-laden team that also received a spark from a junior, Danny Feldmann, now playing for the Missouri Tigers.

Side note: Feldmann, a 6-9 junior, had the game of his MU career in Tuesday night's NIT win over Davidson, 22 minutes of playing time, four points and four rebounds.

"That was so cool," Buffington said. "It was just fun seeing him get his competitive edge back. The opportunity arose where he could get some significant minutes and he definitely made the most of them."

This will be Buffington's third trip to the Final Four, as he went as a player with New Bloomfield in 1995. Which position has more pressure, player or coach?

"As a 17 year-old kid, you're in more of a mode, individually, that you want to help your team win," he said. "But as a coach, you feel so responsible for the entire team."

Helias will have a pep rally for the team at 2:20 p.m. Friday, and have another rally as the team bus departs at 4:30 p.m.

"One of the great things about Helias," Buffington said, "is that you support every sport like it's your own. When you're part of something like that, it's really special.

"Everyone knows that we haven't hung a (state championship) banner since 2005. When a team gets a chance to do that, you need everybody's support to get that done.

"And when you win one, it's not just for the team, it's for the whole school, it's for the whole community."

Buffington has had another message for his team --- make the most of it.

"You don't get these chances back," he said. "You just have to go out there and play every possession like it's your last, and win every battle and leave it all on the floor.

"We're excited about this opportunity, because the last three or four weeks, we've started really playing well. We're putting it all together."

At just the right time.

And it all started after a meeting with Meyer.