Travis House may have to scan the El Dorado High School gymnasium to find references to the basketball program, but he has trained his eyes to find them almost every time he enters.
Those references don’t take up much room, but now the Wildcats are finally reserving another small spot.
After a 13-year absence and a history that doesn’t include many memorable moments or seasons, El Dorado is returning to the state tournament. The Wildcats open play in Class 4A-Division I Thursday afternoon against Basehor-Linwood in Salina.
El Dorado has never won a state basketball championship – its best finish was second in 1999.
“You see the banners every day at practice and you just wish, ‘Boy, I wish we could get one up there,’ ” House said. “Just knowing that we accomplished that is something to be proud of, and being one of very few of those banners makes it even better.”
El Dorado has 11 winning seasons in the last 40 years, but most of that success has come under current coach Gary Melcher.
Melcher was in the sixth season of his first stint as coach in ’99, when El Dorado finished 22-4 but fell in the 4A championship game by two points to Colby. Melcher led the Wildcats back to state the following two seasons but handed the program over to Rob McKim in 2003 while serving as athletic director.
Since returning as coach in 2008, Melcher has two more winning seasons. His long history with the school and the basketball team has him trying to live in the moment of this year’s rare achievement while also looking to appreciate the historical significance.
“I think since it’s been a decent amount of time since we’ve been there, it’s probably a pretty neat deal for our community,” Melcher said. “We’ve had a couple people come out to practice and talk to the kids and tell them how proud they were and that if they don’t think it’s important to people in town, they wanted to let them know that it is.”
A 14-7 record last season was El Dorado’s best in 13 years, but not enough to reach the state tournament as the Wildcats were knocked off in the opening round of sub-state.
That team lost three senior starters and it appeared El Dorado’s hopes for a new basketball banner could also be departing. But the Wildcats survived those graduations, along with multiple injuries and a difficult February this year, to finally mark its return to the postseason at 13-9.
“It was kind of disappointing last year,” House said. “We had a really good season going and we didn’t want it to come to an end. But I wasn’t discouraged coming into this season. If anything, I was more motivated.”
El Dorado lost four of five games from Feb. 7-18, including defeats of 16 points to Andale, 19 to McPherson and 34 to Andale. Adjusting to injuries and players returning from them, the Wildcats couldn’t settle and essentially secured a less-productive regular season than the previous one.
That, though, turned out to be a positive when the Wildcats took stock of what got them to this point.
“I think the kids thought we were going to be better, record-wise, than we were last year,” Melcher said. “When we got to the point where we figured out we weren’t going to be, I think it would have been pretty easy to finish it out and go through the motions. They hung tough and didn’t.”
Experience got El Dorado through that rough stretch, but a lack of experience in the state tournament means the Wildcats aren’t sure what to expect. They can expect, however, another basketball banner. And someday those might be easier to spot.
“With our seeding (No. 6), we aren’t expected to win our first game, so that’s something we can use to our advantage,” House said. “We don’t have that pressure of, ‘You guys should win this game,’ so we can just go out and play.”