By JOSH RIZZO
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
The target on their backs is bigger.
Their goal isn't.
The Quincy Notre Dame boys basketball players expect to challenge for the championship of the small schools bracket of the State Farm Holiday Classic regardless of the Raiders' seed. The fact QND, the defending tournament champion, received the top seed simply makes the challenge a little harder.
"We're excited," Raiders senior guard Nick Dietrich said. "We expect to do well, but we can't take any team lightly. We have to play hard every game. Teams might be gunning for us since we're the No. 1 seed. We just need to come out every night and be ready for them."
Last year as the third seed, QND (10-1) won its third Classic championship and first since 2004. The path back to the championship begins at 1 p.m. Wednesday against Macon Meridian at Illinois Weselyan's Shirk Center.
Raiders coach Scott Douglas said he doesn't believe being seeded No. 1 will affect his team much.
"I don't know they will be different," Douglas said of QND's expectations. "The one thing we've found out about that tournament is every game is a challenge and you're always playing somebody who is pretty darn good and you have to play well. Our guys understand that."
QND enters the tournament having rolled through much of its early-season schedule, winning 10 games by an average margin of 31.4 points per game. After Breese Mater Dei handed the Raiders their first loss nine days ago, QND rebounded with last Tuesday's 72-39 win over Illini West.
Overcoming its first bump in the road was a big step for the Raiders, who had to prove they can be mentally tough.
"That tournament is a grind because you play four games in four days," QND senior Alex Fitch said. "It's about mental strength.
"Physical strength is a big thing, because your legs are feeling it the last few days, but staying mentally sharp is a key."
It won't be an easy road back to the title game. Fifth-seeded Minonk Fieldcrest was ranked 10th in the initial Class 2A state poll, while third-seeded Chicago Providence St. Mel and fourth-seeded St. Joseph-Ogden both received votes.
Last year's bracket was similarly difficult, but the Raiders' chemistry enabled them to survive it.
"I think we played together," Douglas said. "I thought we played pretty smart during the tournament. Hopefully, that's what we'll repeat. That's all we can ask anytime we go out there is that we play really, really hard and do it together.
"Compete and see where you end up. It's going to be a challenging tournament."
If QND wins in the first round, it will play the winner of Rock Island Alleman and Bloomington Central Catholic at 9 p.m. Tuesday at Normal West High School. If the Raiders lose, they will play the loser at 9:30 a.m. at Normal West.
The Raiders are ready to defend their crown. QND knows what it takes.
"You always come in expecting and hoping to win," Fitch said. "This year, I think it's definitely a realistic goal right from the beginning. We know it because we have a lot of players back and it's a good tournament, but we have a solid team coming in. We have more experience playing in a tournament like this.
"Last year, we didn't know what to expect. This year, we have more of a feeling of what we're going into."