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Adversity helped shape St. George’s boys basketball team

Actors and basketball players react differently to the phrase “break a leg.”

What’s considered a good omen on the stage doesn’t translate well to the court, although the St. George’s boys basketball team might suggest otherwise.

The Dragons (27-0) begin their quest for a second consecutive State 2B title at 9 tonight at the Arena against Mossyrock. St. George’s has won 47 consecutive games, the sixth-longest streak in state boys history, and is one bounce away from a 57-game streak. A late-game shot didn’t quite fall when the Dragons lost to eventual State 2A champion Pullman 55-54 on Dec. 27, 2012.

The Dragons feature three seniors – guard Erik Muelheims, guard/forward Will Tender and forward Dexter Sienko – with 1,000 career points. What happened early in the 2011-12 season may have shaped that balance.

Playing at Republic in the second game of the season, the 6-foot-7 Sienko went up for a second-quarter dunk, got undercut, and fractured his leg when he landed awkwardly.

Looking back, the Dragons can see how Sienko’s broken leg may have influenced the success of the last two seasons.

“I thought it was a good year for everyone else to grow, and probably something that made me stronger overall,” Sienko said.

“Will and I benefited from that,” Muelheims said. “The whole team did, learning leadership roles.”

Learning how to respond to setbacks helped the Dragons at state last year and during this year’s regular season.

St. George’s lost senior guard Mark Kenney to a concussion before last year’s state tournament. The Dragons struggled in their opener, a four-point win against Morton-White Pass, and held on for a three-point semifinal win over Lind-Ritzville/Sprague.

“It wasn’t like the same team,” Dragons 13-year coach and athletic director Ryan Peplinski said.

When the title game arrived, the Dragons were ready. St. George’s stormed Colfax 50-28 for its first state championship after three (1996, 2001, 2002) runner-up finishes.

Although the Dragons have had few close games this season, they’ve overcome injuries. Peplinski’s son, junior guard/forward Cody, missed more than a month after breaking his hand. Senior guards Nathan Furbeyre (concussion) and Corey Spalding (shoulder) also missed time.

There was also the Pullman rematch, for the second consecutive season at the Freeman tournament. The Greyhounds led 36-33 at halftime, but St. George’s won 69-56 after a 23-9 third quarter.

“It was the same thing we always do, control the boards and make their best players take tough shots,” Peplinski said. “It’s not like we were trying to get revenge.”

The pieces that created this championship group came together gradually. Muelheims started at St. George’s in first grade after moving from Oklahoma. Tender enrolled the following year after his father, Jamie, was hired to be St. George’s middle-school principal and moved the family from Atlanta. Sienko arrived in fifth grade from Dallas after his father, Mark, an oncologist, accepted a job in Spokane.

“I think the biggest thing is how friendly and close a group of guys we are,” Muelheims said.

Muelheims also played soccer for four years and baseball during his freshman year. Tender competed in cross country for three years and soccer for two. Sienko played soccer for three years and baseball for one.

All three will play basketball in college. Muelheims selected the University of Chicago; Tender is deciding among three or four schools, including Carroll of Helena and Denison (Ohio), his parents’ school; and Sienko will choose among the University of Denver, Regis (Colo.) and Gonzaga, which has offered a walk-on spot.

“The past I don’t know how many years of work coming together, it’s a little surreal,” Tender said. “We’ve been playing together a lot of us since second grade, and this will be the last time we’ll be playing together.”