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EARLIER: Rockets revved, ready

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By Laura Clark

In preparing to face Shelby County today, Ballard has predictably done its homework: scrutinizing players and game tapes.

The Bruins will  know where Cache Tomlinson likes to spot up for a 3-point shot and to which side Donovan Johnson likes to drive. They may have watched some of those key games to see how opponents put Shelby County on the cusp of losing.

Opponents such as Anderson County, who when facing Shelby on Jan. 2, slowed the game to such an agonizing pace the Rockets barely pulled out a 32-30 victory. Or in the 8th Region final against South Oldham, which Shelby won in a comeback hinging on bold defensive plays.

But any coach knows there are just some intangibles that can't be scouted. However subtle they are, elements such as experience, chemistry and focus are the undercurrents of Shelby's success.

On the eve of the State Tournament, the Rockets' seniors see these as their powerful advantage.

All five of them  – Johnson, Tomlinson, Nigel Beach, Boomer Beckley and Eric Standafer – saw playing time two years ago when Shelby made it to the Final Four in the tournament.

"I'm looking to start where we left off in Rupp," said Beach, who had several double-digit scoring games in 2008. "I'm really excited to be back on the court.

"As sophomores, we played against Darrius Miller, and there's not one player on that team [Ballard] that's his caliber."

Ahh, there it is. With experience comes confidence, and the Rockets have no shortage of confidence, even pitted against the top-ranked Bruins.

Like brothers

One thing Shelby's learned this year, Standafer said, is that when they play their game, they're tough to beat. The Rockets expect this to continue in the Sweet Sixteen.

"I just look at it as another game," Standafer said. "Being tournament time, everyone's going to come out and play their best."

Said Beckley: "We don't want to go in intimidated. We aren't scared of anyone, but we respect everybody. Most people are counting us out. But I think we can beat them."

Johnson is confident that with so much at stake, there won't be any letdown periods on the floor. These Rockets seem to feed off each other, like picking up the intensity when junior Tavis Elzy comes in, flying around for rebounds and loose balls.

"We all help each other out," Johnson said. "All of us are like brothers; we took [freshman star] Darryl [Hicks] in as a younger brother."

Most of the Rockets have played together since middle school, if not earlier. That's something that Ballard, being from Louisville, probably can't say, Beach pointed out.

"It's not just a team," he added. "We do everything together. We know how to get certain things done – like getting Don to stop talking – and we know what to expect of each other."

Practice makes it work

The Rockets' chemistry on the court this season grew out of some intense practicing, which grew out of their 2009 season ending before the State Tournament.

"We definitely underachieved, and we didn't play up to our potential," Tomlinson said. "We basically have the same team as last year. The main difference is our focus level. We practiced much harder this year, and it showed. We've really put it together this year."

Johnson said everyone's had to listen and do what coach Mike Clark said, and even people that had to learn an upcoming team's offense and defense for the starting players to prepare, they dedicated themselves in practice.

"Our practices have picked up since we won the region," Johnson said. "We just keep working hard."

Facing Ballard

The Rockets have spent a week tweaking the game plan for today. They know they've got to win on the boards and stop Ballard's speedy pressure game.

"We may have to change the way we play to beat them," Beckley said. "We may have to slow it down a bit."

Beach said the 50-50 plays are the most important. The Rockets have to go after every loose ball.

"I think it's going to come down to who wants it more. We're really hungry," he said.

"I'm trying to stay calm," Johnson said. "But I'm a little bit nervous. I think all the jitters will go away after the tipoff – for everybody."