FAIRMONT - Fairmont head coach Jared Thompson was sitting in the St. Paul Civic Center stands the last time that the Cardinal boys basketball team took to the hardwood court in the state tournament.
Then, as an eighth-grade fan, Thompson dreamed of one day getting back to the state tournament.
Twenty-four years later, Thompson and his 24-4 Cardinals will make the program's fifth state appearance as the No. 3-seeded team in the Class AA bracket.
OVER THE TOP — Fairmont forward Ben Abel (23) fires a jump shot over Redwood Valley guard Mitchell Fischer (22) during the Section 3AA basketball championship game last Thursday night at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. Fairmont center Nick Roggow (41), along with Redwood Valley’s Cade Johnson (left) and Sam Pendleton, watch the action. Abel, Roggow and the Fairmont Cardinals tip off the Class AA state quarterfinals against St. Peter at 8 p.m. tonight at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
"I remember being in the stands for that game when I was in eighth grade," said Thompson. "And I thought I want to be part of the tournament. I never made it as a player, but it's very exciting to be able to help get the team back there."
The 2013-14 edition of the Cardinal state qualifiers features seven seniors who play a majority of the minutes.
Senior guard Mitch Pfingsten, a four-year varsity starter, goes into the state tournament averaging 24 points and four assists per game to lead the charge.
Opponents, however, also will have to focus on Josh Eversman, a 6-foot-4 senior forward who is averaging 16.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
Senior guard Luke Becker and senior forward Jay Ruen provide added depth to the Cardinal offense, while senior center Nick Roggow battles inside the paint.
"Our three captains have been playing so consistently for us and that has really helped us here late in the season," said Thompson. "Then it seems like in each playoff game we have had an X-factor player step up and have a big game. Luke Becker, Ruen and Roggow have each taken a turn in being a huge player in the big games. And Taylor Beebe and Luke Peterson have played great for us off the bench."
The balanced Cardinals will face a familiar foe in the opening round of the Class AA state tournament at 8 p.m. tonight at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
The St. Peter Saints, who took home the Section 2AA title, will square off against their South Central Conference rival during the state quarterfinals.
"I think it is unique to play against a team that you know so well on such a large stage," said Thompson. "Both teams know each other so well, but we have talked about how St. Peter now is very different from the St. Peter team a month ago."
The Saints (14-14) are making their fifth state tournament experience as well, after their last berth came in 2012.
The Saints will look to a pair of 6-5 seniors in Kolin Bartlett and Tom Steidler to lead in the quarterfinal, while guard Brendan Reese will be an added challenge.
"The saying is that it is tough to beat a team three times, and it is," said Thompson. "But we respect St. Peter and know that they will be a tough team, so we're focused on them, and one game at a time."
Despite their .500 record going into the tournament, the Saints beat No. 2-ranked Waseca, No. 3-seeded Waterville-Elysian-Morristown and LeSueur-Henderson to earn their place at Williams Arena.
With three players that stand at least 6-4, including sophomore Colton Lusty, the Saints look to be a challenge for the shorter Cardinal roster.
"Last week, going up against Redwood Valley, we knew that we would have the height advantage, so we worked on that because that hasn't been the case for us all season," said Thompson. "Now we are back to our typical game plan and strategy because they will have a height advantage over us."
The winner of the SCC duel in the quarterfinals will advance to face either No. 2-seeded Esko (26-3) or East Grand Forks (20-9) in an 8 p.m. semifinal on Friday night at Target Center in Minneapolis.
Esko entered the tournament ranked No. 1, and is looking to improve upon a fourth-place finish during last year's state event.
Top-seeded Annandale also returns to state for a second consecutive season after placing third in 2013.
No. 5-ranked Annandale sports a 23-6 record and will face New London-Spicer (19-10) in their quarterfinal Friday at Target Center.
The fourth quarterfinal will pit St. Paul Academy and Summit School (20-8) against No. 4-seeded Caledonia (27-2) at Target Center.