DES MOINES - Entering this week's boys state basketball tournament, the underdog role suits Humboldt just fine.
With a nothing to lose and everything to gain approach, the eighth-seeded Wildcats (16-7 overall) will be tested by No. 1 seed and defending state runner-up Harlan (22-2) in a Class 3A quarterfinal here Tuesday afternoon.
Tip is set for 3:45 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena.
"State's always been the goal, but I didn't really start believing until districts started," said first-year Humboldt head coach Jake Mohling. "Before the season, I had picked us for a 15-7 record. I thought we were good enough to compete for a (North Central Conference) title, but we had a lot of ups and downs. It was looking pretty rough for awhile, but the boys just flipped the switch once they got to district play. We've been playing some very good basketball ever since. I think our energy and belief has been the difference."
After dropping their last three regular-season games and four of five overall, the Wildcats ousted Nevada (61-19), Gilbert (63-43) and eighth-ranked Carroll (70-62) en route to Des Moines. This year's state trip is the seventh in school history for the Wildcats, whose last appearance came back in 2002.
"I absolutely love my team, and we have a ton of fun together," Mohling said. "I know we're the underdogs, but our boys have something pretty special about them. It's been just awesome to sit back and watch. With this being my first year, I'm very lucky. (Our success) is not because of me."
Junior Jaxon Heinz (17.6), classmate Brady Ross (11.3) and senior Jack Curran (11.0) form a reliable offensive trio for Humboldt. Rounding out the starting five are junior Austin Zylstra (9.5) and senior Nick Heider (7.5).
Heinz, a 6-foot-0 point guard, paces the Wildcats in nearly every statistical category, including total points (405), made field goals (156), made 3-pointers (46), made free throws (47), assists (92) and steals (31).
"Jaxon is a special player both athletically and physically," said Mohling. "We haven't seen a kid yet that's been able to match his quickness. You always need an extension of the coach out on the court, and there's been so many times where he's walked over and said the exact same thing I was thinking."
As a team, Humboldt has shot 51.5 percent (615 of 1,195) from the field this season, while averaging 69.2 points per contest. The Wildcats, who finished 12-6 in the NCC, have won 11 of their games by double figures. Four of Humboldt's losses have come by five points or less.
"I do think we have a better resume than (Harlan), but it's not their fault who they've played," Mohling said. "(The Cyclones) still went out and performed. We respect their tradition, but we're not scared of them."
Third-ranked Harlan is making its 17th state voyage, including its ninth since 2001 alone. During their current postseason run, the Cyclones easily downed ADM (83-63), Perry (77-55) and Glenwood (54-29).
Carroll Kuemper, which reached the 2A state semifinals last year, handed Harlan both of its defeats this winter by scores of 46-41 and 45-39. The Hawkeye Ten Conference champion Cyclones have prevailed in eight straight and 13 of their last 14 outings. Twenty of Harlan's victories have come by double digits. Seven opponents have been held under 40 points by the Cyclones. Harlan has attempted the third-most 3-pointers (511) among all 3A teams, while being tied for first in makes (190) from outside the arc.
"It's extremely important for us to get off to a good start and get the nerves out of our system," said Mohling. "I'm going to give our boys about five minutes to take everything in and find their parents and friends in the crowd. We have some kids that have been in state golf and football before, so I don't think the atmosphere will bother them. Hopefully, we can come out and set the tone early."
Spearheading the Cyclone attack, which averages 65.2 points a night, are seniors Trey Lansman (18.9), Nathan Cave (15.7) and Adam Juhl (9.4). Lansman, Cave, Juhl and classmate Gabe Ferry each started for Harlan here in 2013.
Lansman, a 6-foot-7 University of Nebraska-Kearney signee, also leads the Cyclones in total points (454), made field goals (159), made free throws (115), rebounds (222) and blocks (70).
"Height is our weakness, and we have trouble with guys that are four or five inches taller than we are," Mohling said. "We're not going to be able to stop Harlan 1-on-1, so we need to work together as one. Offensively, all five of our guys can shoot very well, and we can spread (the defense) out. We know (Lansman and Cave) are going to get their points, but I do think our guards and 3-4-5 players are better."
Veteran Harlan head coach Mitch Osborn owns an impressive career mark of 616-122, which ranks ninth all-time in Iowa history and fifth among active coaches for wins. Osborn, who directed Pomeroy-Palmer to a 1A state crown in 1994 and a runner-up effort in '95, guided the Cyclones to 3A titles in '04 and '06.
Tuesday's winner advances to face either fourth-seeded Chariton (21-3) or No. 5 seed Dubuque Wahlert (20-4) in a 3A semifinal Thursday at 6:35 p.m.