ALBANY -- Gordy Gruhl couldn't believe what he was seeing.
It was just about a year ago, and Gruhl's Deerfield-Windsor boys basketball team had just lost in the GISA Class AAA state championship game for the second year in a row.
It was Monday afternoon at DWS, just two days after the loss. Classes had ended for the day when Gruhl walked by the gym. He looked in to see his kids holding an impromptu basketball practice.
"They got a ball on their own and they were already back in the gym,'' Gruhl said. "I looked at them and thought, 'We're going to be pretty good this year.' "
Boy was he right.
DWS was almost perfect -- losing only one game in its 2010 campaign, and doing so by just a single point. The Knights take a 26-1 record back to Milledgeville, where they meet George Walton (24-2) in the Final Four at 7 tonight for the chance to return to their third straight state title game.
Only this time, the Knights -- who have been to five consecutive Final Fours and last won it all in 2003 -- will take something else into this game: a dedication like none Gruhl has ever seen.
"In the 27 years I've been at Deerfield, I don't think I've ever had a group work harder in the offseason than this group,'' Gruhl said.
What Gruhl didn't know was that his kids didn't just show up to work out the following Monday after the loss. They were in the DWS gym the next day.
"We went to the gym on Sunday, the very next day,'' said Jordan Alexander, a senior, who started last year and was on the team two years ago as a backup. "We were just about crying walking back into that gym, having to do it all over again. It was so disheartening losing two (state title games) in a row, getting your hopes crushed."
Alexander then added: "But if we had sat around, it would have been worse. It sounds crazy, but it helped get our minds off of it.''
And thinking about the future.
"We went right back to work on that Sunday,'' said Michael Matthews, a senior who started for both teams that lost in the final. "I can't tell you how bad it felt, I just felt empty. We all felt so bad after losing. We went back into the gym and started pointing toward this year. This year, there is no Sunday. We're seniors. This is it. If we win it, I don't even have words to describe what that would feel like.''
Matthews, Alexander and Shaun Jones all returned as starters as seniors, and of the 11 players who will try to win it all, six are seniors, including newcomer Reggie Brown, who learned early all about what this season means at Deerfield.
"I found out the first day I was here how determined they are to win,'' said Brown, who transferred from Albany High. "A lot of people say they are determined, but they don't put in the work. The guys on this team actually put in the extra hours and do the work. They're determined. They stay in the weight room, they stay after practice every day to do extra work.''
Brown was swept away with the DWS way of life.
"They always say 'No one will out-hustle us,' and 'No one will out-rebound us,' and 'No one will play harder than us,' and they mean it,'' Brown said. "They're determined. I had to get with it.''
Gruhl knows it better than anyone.
"Sometimes you have teams that you have to figure out ways to get them into the gym,'' he said. "Not with this group. I've never had to worry about this team. When kids work that hard you like to see them get rewarded. They put in the time. They certainly have done the things they needed to do to get here.''
If they needed a push, Gruhl figured he would put it in writing -- and literally put it on their backs. So he gave everyone a T-shirt, and on the back of each shirt in big letters it says: "Lets Get It Done.''
They wear the shirts to every road game, and to school every Friday, and they carry the words with them onto every court.
"We say it when we break every huddle,'' said Matthews, and "We say it every day at the end of practice,'' Gruhl added.
The message is clear.
"It's in big red and blue letters,'' Brown said. "When we walk into the gym, everybody sees it.''
And everyone on this team feels it. It has become Deerfield's mantra, a slogan and war cry, a shout-out to everyone who follows this team -- a team that doesn't need to say anything.
"They know,'' Gruhl said. "They just want to do it.''
Last week, Alexander got the message from another source, Colie Young, the father of former DWS star Andre Young, who is now at Clemson.
"I was having lunch when Andre Young's dad was talking to coach Gruhl, and he came over to me,'' Alexander said. "He said, 'You're a senior. If you don't get it done this year, when are you going to do it?' We are all pushing each other.''
It shows on the court, where DWS has three and four players in double figures almost every night. Brown (16.5), Matthews (15.5) and junior Banks Kinslow (11.5) are averaging double figures for the season, and Jones (8.5), Alexander (6.5) and senior Duane Alexander (6.5) are close behind them. Freshman Ramello Carter (7.5) was a big factor off the bench, but he is out with a kneecap injury.
It's difficult to imagine anything affecting Deerfield's seniors at this point. In the past four seasons, DWS has a 103-8 record.
"We have just worked too hard, and we're just too hungry,'' Matthews said. "This is our last chance.''
Gruhl would like to buy a new set of shirts.
"If we win it, we'll get new ones,'' Gruhl said. "They'll say, 'We got it done.' "