Matt Kern admits, he's not a big theme guy. But the York girls coach is having a lot fun with one this season, and so is his team.
After all, how could you not have a blast connecting basketball and "Smokey and the Bandit?"
The 1977 movie, and mostly its notable theme song "East Bound and Down," are helping steer the Dukes' success.
"They're kind of buying into it," said Kern, who had shirts made up to further instill the theme. "We play (the song) at our games and pregames and the crowd stands up and claps. It's kind of fun."
York made five straight trips to the state tournament from 2014-18 before falling short last year. Lincoln is again the hopeful destination, and so the Dukes are aiming for an eastbound journey.
They're on the right track. York is 10-2, ranked No. 4 in Class B and is coming off a 47-43 win against then-No. 2 Northwest for its biggest victory of the season.
"We want to get back to the state tournament," Kern said. "That's obviously an expectation in York, but we didn't go last year. We know that it isn't going to be easy, and that's kind of the whole theme — a long way to go and a short time to get there."
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York lost several seniors and cornerstone players from the 2018 state tournament team. A younger roster navigated through a very rugged Class B landscape last season and finished at 10-13. They didn't make state, but the wheels were in motion, and it carried into a strong summer of workouts.
Four starters are back, and York went from being one of the youngest teams in Class B to one of the most experienced. The Dukes are led by 6-foot-1 senior Natalia Dick (13.8 points per game) and 6-foot junior guard Maddie Portwine (13.4). Sophomores Masa Scheierman and Destiny Shepherd also are returning starters, and junior Addison Legg and sophomore Mattie Pohl are helping off the bench. Size — the Dukes have four players at 5-11 or taller — is the team's strength.
York dropped two games at the Humphrey St. Francis holiday tournament, losing to small-school powers Wynot and Crofton. The tournament tested the players' comfort level, and Kern called it an "incredible" experience.
"Leaving there with two losses, I hate that, but we lost to some amazing teams, and I think it refocused us," he added.
Saturday's win against defending state champion Northwest was huge, but Kern goes back to a game earlier in the week against Columbus Scotus. The Dukes trailed most of the game but battled back to win 43-40, showing they can finish games.
Of course, the Northwest win was a confidence-booster, too.
"With this team, we want them to understand that they can win those games," Kern said. "Obviously to beat a team like that, Northwest, just shows that you can do it. That's great for our confidence, the girls are believing, they realize that maybe this is a group that can do some special things, and it makes it that much more fun."
The Northwest game kicked off a tough stretch for the Dukes. They'll play a very talented Grand Island Central Catholic team, ranked No. 6 in Class C-2, on Tuesday and then host a showdown with No. 1 and Central Conference rival Crete on Friday. A trip to No. 8 Norris follows. York could see either Northwest or Crete — and potentially both — again in the conference tournament.
As the song goes, a long way to go and a short time to get there.
"We could be a really good team, compete with a lot of good teams and that's just what we're trying to build on," Kern said.
Reach Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.