The Missouri Mavericks will go into this next round of the playoffs as a decided underdog against a Rapid City Rush team that was 5-0 against the hometown heroes this season.

As I rolled out of bed at 5:20 a.m. Friday, my wife groaned, “Are you crazy?”

Yes, I am.

I wanted to be on hand when the Missouri Mavericks bus rolled into the Independence Events Center following Thursday night’s 3-1, playoff-clinching victory at Mississippi.

My buddy Jeff Barge, who did such a great job helping me collect phone interviews with the Mavericks following the emotionally charged win, was on his cell phone, telling me the bus was about 30 minutes outside of Independence.

I arrived at the Events Center a few moments before the bus pulled up to the south entrance and let coach Scott Hillman, president and general manager Brent Thiessen and best public relations man in the business, Patrick Armstrong, out of its doors.

It then crawled to the back of the building where the players slowed stumbled out, one by one.

“I haven’t slept all night,” Thiessen said. “We played cards, laughed and talked about the (playoff) series all night. It was great!”

Hillman looked blurry eyed, but managed a grin.

“What a great team effort by the boys,” he said, as he took his ever-present lap top and a suitcase into his office.

Charlie Effinger, the talk of the playoffs, looked like he’d just awoken from a long winter’s nap.

“Last night was an emotional high,” Effinger said, after stopping 36 of 37 RiverKing attempts, including an amazing 17 in the third period. “I think I managed to get about four or five hours of sleep. I’m lucky because I can sleep on a bus. I think most of the guys just played cards or talked.

“It was fun – when I wasn’t sleeping.”

The Mavericks will go into this next round of the playoffs as a decided underdog against a Rapid City Rush team that was 5-0 against the hometown heroes this season.

But as Hillman told me earlier in the week, “They weren’t 5-0 against this team.”

He was referring to the new-look Mavericks, who feature the hottest goaltender in the league in Effinger, a defensive stallion in Blake Forsyth and a rejuvenated offense that features Bill Vandermeer, who scored the first goal in playoff history and the game winner Thursday night after returning to the team following long absence due to a high ankle sprain.

“If we play like we did last night, we’re going to give any team a run for its money,” Vandermeer said. “Everyone was great Thursday night – and I mean everyone. It was so much fun.”

Brett Hammond scored the first goal of the game just 1:14 into the first period, which Effinger said, “…changed the entire complexion of the game. The team that scored first had won the first two games. That goal was huge. Then Bill followed with his goal and we knew we were on the way to a great victory.”

While Rapid City brings an impressive 43-14-7 record to the Events Center, the Mavericks aren’t quaking in their skates.

“It’s David vs. Goliath for sure,” Hillman said, “but the boys are ready for the challenge. I have so much respect for the Rush and Joe (Ferras, the Rush coach). He was at Amarillo when I was (playing) at Odessa and a year ago, I went to Rapid City as an observer and was able to live in his home and he treated me like a member of his family. He’s one of my role models. They’re just a second-year team and they’re where we want to be next year.”

When asked about that long, and winding road to the playoffs, Hillman simply said, “It feels like a lifetime since we began this team last summer. And yesterday was like Christmas for me and the boys.”

And who knows, maybe the biggest and best package is still sitting under the tree.