The Cardinal boys’ basketball team played like a weight had been lifted off its shoulders on Tuesday night.
Alexandria came into the first round of the Section 8AAA tournament losers of three straight games and five of six overall. On top of that was five straight years of losing in the opening round of the playoffs and a team that had already beaten them twice this season looking to extend that to six.
Instead of feeling the pressure, Alexandria played like it had been given new life after a disappointing regular season. The Cardinals jumped on Sauk Rapids-Rice 32-13 at the half behind four threes from sophomore John Vogeler. They went on to win 67-40 to advance to the 8AAA semifinals against top-seeded Detroit Lakes this Saturday.
I talked to Vogeler, junior Logan Doyle and head coach Forrest Witt after the game about a wide open section field and where they think their team stands going into the semifinals. You can find that story in tomorrow’s issue of the Echo Press. Here is the rest of my interview with them that I wasn’t able to get into the print edition.
EM: After having not advanced past the first round in so long, how big of a mental hurdle was this for you guys to get past?
LD: That was the fist hurdle we wanted to overcome. We said at the beginning of the season that we wanted to get a home playoff game. We did that. This first one’s huge. This gets all the jitters out of the way. Coach said it’s 0-0 in the playoffs. Anybody can beat anybody, and we showed that tonight.
EM: Holding leads has been as issue throughout the regular season. Tonight, you are up by 20 points early in the second half before Sauk Rapids made a run to cut it to 10 with plenty of time left. What was different tonight that allowed you guys to weather that storm and pull away down the stretch?
LD: Coaches always said when they’re making a run, you can’t fight each other. You have to keep your goal in mind. You can’t play black on black and against white. You all have to play together and have the same goal in mind. We were focused on that. No one was saying, ‘I’m going to put the team on my back.’ It was a team effort. One guy wasn’t going to do it tonight. We all had to chip in.”
EM: During that Sauk Rapids run did you ever look at it and say, ‘Oh no, here we go again?” Or was there a different feel tonight?
LD: It’s always in the back of your mind. When you’re up 20, and they cut it to 10, you’re like, we can’t lose this way again. We’ve just had too many of them slip away. I think we all came together and just said there’s no way we’re losing this game. You have to finish games.
EM: John Vogeler was able to really extend the defense with his five three pointers in the game. How much does that help out the rest of this offense?
LD: It opens up the whole floor. With Vogeler, pretty much anywhere on this side of half court, he can let it fly if he’s feeling it and there’s nothing you can do about it. That makes them have to play tough defense up in his grill. That opens up the whole rest of the floor.
EM: You guys have already beaten top-seeded Detroit Lakes this season. The South’s No. 1 seed Little Falls has already lost to fourth-seeded Sartell, opening things up even more in the section. What is your mindset going forward here in what looks like a wide open field?
LD: After we lost to Fergus Falls (in the regular season finale), we all got together as a team. Buck [Smith] kind of took control and said, ‘Guys, I don’t care who scores the most points. I don’t care if we win 14-13. I just know we can win our section and get to state.’ He just said think of how cool it would be for everyone to come down and cheer us on. We all just said, that’s within our reach. If we win tonight, we beat the other top seeds in our section. We wanted to play in St. Cloud. That was the first step, and then we want to play in the Target Center.
EM: How does it feel to get this win, knowing how long it has been since Alexandria won a first-round playoff game.
JV: Feels great, fantastic. Our whole week we were preparing to get this win. Coaches were emphasizing box out, and we didn’t do that in the last two weeks and we lost. We turned that around. Boxing out was a key.
EM: After the way things have gone in the regular season with losing leads, how nice was it to weather a run that they made in the second half and pull away in the end?
JV: It was fantastic. It was a blessing that we could pull it off. I believe we had like six games this season where we were up or tied at the half, and we end up falling apart in the second half. We stayed poised. Our point guards had good court vision, handled the ball very well, looked to our bigs and executed plays.
EM: What is the confidence level like right now with this team after getting such a convincing win?
JV: We’re pretty confident right now. We’re just happy we got the win because we hadn’t done that in forever. We beat Detroit Lakes during the regular season, but that doesn’t count now. It’s playoffs, one and done. We’re just trying to stay focused. Play like we did today and we should be fine.
EM: Your defense was instrumental in building that big early lead after holding them to just 13 points in the first half.
JV: We worked very hard on our zone and we communicated. That’s all the coaches said all week was communicate, communicate, communicate. We did that. We called out screens, called out back doors, got some steals. The whole year we haven’t been really a team. We’ve had single players. All of us have been, but we played like a team today. We communicated and played like a real basketball team.
Head coach Forrest Witt
EM: How nice was it to see this team put everything together tonight at the most important time of the season?
FW: It was great. We’ve been talking consistently about defending and rebounding and all those little things that are so controllable every single night. We haven’t done that consistently from game to game, but tonight I think something stuck with them. It was a physical game and Sauk Rapids has some good athletes and guys that go to the glass hard, and we won that toughness battle that you have to win in playoff games.
EM: John got hot there in the first half, hitting those four threes before the break. How important was it to see some perimeter shots fall early like that?
FW: It was huge. Our outside shooting has been a little bit inconsistent this year, and I think everybody can just breathe when someone hits shots like that. John has proven it. He’s done that at that level where he’s hit four in a row in four, five different games. Once he figures out how to get those shots within the flow of our offense, he’s really going to be effective. Right now, some of those are deep threes, and if we miss those it takes us out of the flow of our offense, but it’s something that he’ll learn.
EM: This is a team that had beaten you twice already this season. Were you surprised, not that you won, but how you were able to win by 27 points?
FW: To be honest, yeah, a little bit. It was one of those things where we challenged them in practice this week. It’s one and done. You can be home on Wednesday after school or we can come back here and practice and have a few more and see what happens. The effort and energy and the will to win was impressive. It’s something we’ve been looking for for a while. I wish we would have got it a little earlier, but it’s a new season and we’ll take it now as opposed to at one point in the regular season.
EM: The playoffs allow teams to kind of start over. After a disappointing regular season, do you get the sense that that’s how your kids looked at it?
FW: We told them coming down the stretch, the playoffs are a new season. It doesn’t matter if you’re a one seed or an eight seed, top of the conference or bottom of the conference. We knew what we were capable of. It was just a matter of doing it consistently. Hats off to our guys because they played with heart and passion that wins basketball games like this and can win basketball games in the semifinals and the finals.