Sullivan Claims First District Championship Since 2003
Sullivan head coach Dino McKinney couldn’t walk 20 feet without someone — a former player or a fellow coach — stopping to congratulate him.
McKinney, who is in his eighth year at Sullivan, guided the Eagles to their first district championship since 2003 on Friday.
He estimated that 30 former players from the last eight years were on hand Friday to witness the Eagles take down Rolla 48-38. Two of his fellow Four Rivers Conference coaches — Ben Smith of St. James and John VanLeer of Pacific — attended the game and congratulated McKinney following the win.
“John got his (first) last year and we got ours this year. It’s a good feeling,” McKinney said.
The victory put to rest nearly two decades of coming up just short in the district tournament.
Sullivan’s victory on Friday came against Rolla, a state-ranked program looking for its third straight district championship.
The Eagles were seeded third in the the Class 4 District 10 tournament and McKinney had to make constant adjustments to get Sullivan in position to take down Union on Tuesday night, then slaying Rolla in the title game.
When the Eagles won the district title 16 years ago, it came with a lot less anxiety. Sullivan blew past Owensville and Salem to grab the championship that season. They were seconds away from advancing to the Final Four, but a buzzer-beating shot by De Soto ended the season.
Sullivan has had one of the area’s most steady programs since that point, but the district championship consistently proved elusive. Whether it was St. Francis Borgia, Pacific or St. Clair, Sullivan was unable to get over the hump. Postseason success never matched regular season success.
“We’ve been really lucky that the kids have played really hard for us,” said McKinney, whose teams have typically skewed smaller and in the last few years, reliant on 3-point shooting.
The Eagles emerged from two straight losing campaigns to reach the district semifinals in 2007 against St. Clair, but fell short against the Bulldogs. They wound up in the championship game a year later and again fell short to their conference nemesis.
Blair Thompson took over the program from Gary Scott for the 2008-2009 season. The Eagles finished 20-4, but lost to Pacific in the semifinal at Union.
That began a 10-year streak of Sullivan’s season ending in defeat to Pacific or Borgia. From 2010 through 2015, Sullivan lost to Borgia three times in the championship game and three times in the semifinal.
Two of the defeats came at Union, which has been a difficult gym for the Eagles to play in.
“The background is so big,” McKinney said. “It’s tough for anyone coming in.”
Going into the district tournament, Sullivan lost their two previous regular season trips to Union. They stopped the Wildcats on Tuesday night in the semifinal and shot better beyond the arc (10-20) than inside (4-13). That followed a 14-29 (48 percent) performance in the first round against Owensville.