HAMMOND | The entire student body and staff lined the main hallway of Bishop Noll Institute for a rousing, energetic sendoff shortly after noon Friday.
With a huge Eclipse charter bus idling outside, members of the undefeated Bishop Noll boys basketball team ran through a gantlet of adoring classmates in a microcosm of a busy week rife with ardent support but also time-consuming distractions.
After a quick prayer, the Warriors were bound for Indianapolis, where they'll play Park Tudor in the Class 2A state championship at approximately 11:30 a.m. Saturday in Conseco Fieldhouse. As the departure approached, relief washed over some members of the program as the buildup is all but done, and all that's left now is the most important game of their lives.
"It's been pretty amazing this week with all of the fans behind us, but I don't think it's going to hit me until I'm actually getting ready for the game," senior point guard Adonis Filer said. "It's kind of like a dream right now."
For 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Milos Kostic, who once stepped inside Conseco and promised friends he'd one day play there, the trip is the culmination of hard work and adversity faced in his homeland of Serbia, where he lived until a few years ago.
"My dream's going to come true," Kostic said. "I'm excited. A lot of people are going to be there, and I'm going there to try to do my best."
The Warriors (26-0) planned to watch game film on the bus ride, practice at an Indianapolis Catholic Youth Organization, dine downtown and then go to bed early in anticipation of Saturday morning's game against the Panthers (25-2). Coach Drew Trost said his team is focused.
"You could definitely tell in practice," Trost said. "We locked them into practice the last two days and kept everyone out."
To wit, freshman reserve Larry Crisler broke his nose Thursday and will wear a plastic mask in the title game.
Well-wishing alumni and community supporters were everywhere this week with a congratulatory handshake. Trost was the talk of the barber shop while getting a haircut early in the week and was accosted at a local restaurant Thursday.
"You can feel the Hoosier Hysteria throughout the region," Trost said.
Noll, which has earned team state championships in football, baseball and swimming, never has won a state title in basketball.
Terry Austin, who played on the Bishop Noll team that made the single-class Final Four in 1988, stopped to say hello Friday just an hour after landing at Midway Airport from Minneapolis, where the East Chicago native works for a nonprofit.
"I wanted to be able to tell them to embrace this because these are the moments you'll never forget," Austin said. "I'll never forget playing against Shawn Kemp and that Concord team. Wearing our blue and gold jerseys, we had a lot of pride."
Noll Principal Colleen McCoy-Cejka said the Warriors have been classy all week as the school sold its allotment of 2,000 tickets in less than 48 hours, tugged at the shirts of the stars and planned a parade for 1 p.m. Sunday near the school.
"The kids are focusing as well as they possibly can while we're in the midst of having made history and trying to make history," McCoy-Cejka said. "The players are nervous, but the student body is so supportive."