Jefferson City's tough road in the Class 5 District 9 Tournament just got a little bit easier.
The third-seeded Jays (8-14) will face a second-seeded Rock Bridge team (17-8) that's without its best player in the district semifinals at 7:30 p.m. today at Hickman.
Nick Norton, a junior guard who already has verbally committed to Creighton, tore his ACL in a game last Friday at Helias. Norton tops Rock Bridge with 18 points per game.
"It's a shame," Jefferson City head coach Blair Thompson said. "A kid that puts that much time into basketball, for that to happen, it's not something I wish on anybody. I wish him a speedy recovery. He's a fun player to watch and fun to coach against.
"I think they'll be looking to have people step up. That's a big hole to fill, but I'd imagine they'll have discussed that. (Jackson) Dubinski and (Ryan) Kreklow will have to pick up some of the scoring load. We still have a lot of work to do."
Even if Jefferson City can get past the injury-plagued Bruins, the state's top-ranked team likely awaits in the district finals - the 22-2 Hickman Kewpies. They play fourth-seeded Camdenton (12-15) in the first semifinal at 6 p.m. today.
"Hickman's obviously good enough to earn the ranking of No. 1 in the state. That in itself is pretty impressive for a district to have that going on in it," Thompson said. "Rock Bridge is traditionally very good and once again this year they're solid. Anybody that's going to win this district is going to have to beat Hickman. It's that time of year, though, either you do it or you don't. I think everybody understands that."
Jefferson City is a combined 0-5 against Rock Bridge and Hickman this season, dropping 55-54 and 70-47 decisions to the Bruins and suffering losses to the Kewpies by scores of 76-49, 56-51 and 87-65.
"We've taken into account lessons from each game and applied them to this week," Thompson said. "Either we can pass the test or we can't."
The first test is Rock Bridge.
"We've really got to play a good defensive game," Thompson said. "We have to be good in defensive transition first and then we have to be able to keep the ball in front of us and rotate in the halfcourt. Those are two things I feel like have hurt us in the last couple months. It's something that we've spent a lot of time on and addressed. I feel like we've gotten better. We will have to play our best defensive game."
The final exam would then be Hickman.
"You're going to have to play an outstanding game, and we're capable of doing that," Thompson said. "We had them, it was a four-point game with under two minutes to go here (Dec. 18 at Fleming Fieldhouse, the five-point loss). We finished the game with six empty trips or something of that nature. I think we can put together and even better game plan and performance."
Thompson thinks things might be different in the postseason.
"Just the nature of these do-or-die games," he said. "They have a lot of pressure on them right now. They're going to take everybody's best shot, including ours if we're able to make it to (that game)."
As for Jefferson City's four seniors, Thompson hopes to send them out with a bang.
"I really hope for their sake that we're able to play well, have a good showing and come up with something they'll remember for the rest of their lives," he said.