New Plymouth High has a mostly new set of boys basketball players with an old score to settle.
The Pilgrims have won four straight 2A District Three championships - and no state titles in that span.
Even worse, they watched district foes claim the past two state championships. Melba beat New Plymouth in the 2011 final, and Cole Valley Christian won the title while New Plymouth finished third in 2012.
"That is definitely on my mind," said junior guard Chase White, who is in his third year on varsity and the only significant contributor left from last year's team.
The Pilgrims advanced to the semifinals Thursday at Capital High with a hard-fought 46-42 win over Soda Springs. They'll face Firth at 8 p.m. Friday.
And in a surprising twist, New Plymouth is the only team remaining from powerful District Three. Firth dethroned Cole Valley 64-34, and West Side beat North Star 44-36 in overtime.
Cole Valley was the regular-season champion in the 2A Western Idaho Conference, which coaches say was so deep that even the teams at the bottom of the standings were sound.
"Last year was my first year in it, and I felt like our fifth- and sixth-place teams could have competed in this tournament," said North Star coach Cody Pickett, whose team will try to repeat as state consolation champs. "And I feel that way this year, too. It prepares us better for state. I think that's why we always have a good state showing."
Those regular-season challenges paid dividends for New Plymouth, which squandered most of its eight-point, second-half lead before making baskets on its final two possessions to secure the victory. And they nearly paid off for North Star, which overcame a four-point, fourth-quarter deficit and had a shot to win the game at the regulation buzzer.
"It definitely sets us up for the state tournament because at state, everyone's tough," New Plymouth junior post Nate Woods said.
Last year, New Plymouth coach Mark Van Weerdhuizen said, 3A state champion Fruitland would have faced some challenges in the lower-level WIC.
For the conference, like New Plymouth, this was a reloading year.
"We graduated a lot of talent," Van Weerdhuizen said, "but we've had a lot of kids who have stepped up who I don't think maybe people thought last year would be in this situation."
New Plymouth benefited from its tradition of success. Even the players who weren't on varsity the past couple years were learning what's expected. The Pilgrims beat Soda Springs by forcing 19 turnovers and outrebounding the larger Cardinals 35-25.
"We've kind of created a legacy almost of the way we play, and it all starts with our defense," White said. " We're definitely the hardest-working (New Plymouth) team of the past few years that we've been to state. We make up for our lack of talent with our defense."
Said Van Weerdhuizen: "I'll be the first to tell you this isn't as talented a team as those last two, but there's something about them that they just seem to win some of these games that maybe we shouldn't."
Case in point: the district final.
North Star led by three in the final seconds and hit the first of two free throws. Woods rebounded a miss on the second attempt and dished to White, who drilled a long 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left to cut the deficit to one.
Woods stole the ensuing inbounds pass and New Plymouth called timeout with 1.1 seconds left.
Cody Hinson, inbounding from midcourt, faked a pass one way and found Woods - not the play's intended target - open instead.
"I ended up slipping away," Woods said. "At that point, I didn't even think about it. I just put the ball up and then it bounced around a couple times and went in. It really scared me at first."
So while the Firth Cougars looked like a juggernaut Thursday, there's something about these Pilgrims.
New Plymouth has won seven of its past eight games.
"It's pretty special," Van Weerdhuizen said, "because we lost six of seven (this season), too."
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