Alexandria’s Logan Doyle and John Vogeler didn’t want to wait until Saturday to play Fergus Falls in the Section 8-AAA semifinals after last night’s 66-51 win over Little Falls.
“I’d suit up and play them right now,” Doyle said.
My how things have changed for this team. The body language, the confidence, the execution – everything looked much different last night than the first time I watched the Cardinals in the season opener against Moorhead on November 30. That night seems like a distant memory for a group that has now won eight of its last nine games after falling to 5-11 on February 8.
“Confidence is a huge factor in the game of basketball, in really any sport and anything you do,” head coach Forrest Witt said. “The guys are playing at a high level right now, and I think we need to understand that they’ve earned that confidence. It could have very easily left the practices and the building when we were struggling, sitting at 5-11. They just kept chipping away, kept battling with one another and getting through the tough times because I think they saw that we did have potential when we had everything together, and we were getting every piece of the puzzle.”
The Cardinals never felt they were that far off to begin with. Alexandria’s only lopsided loss this year came in that season-opener against Moorhead. The Spuds got good shots that whole game and won 69-42 behind 30 points from Aaron Lien. Since then, the Cardinals haven’t lost a game by more than 10 points.
Their biggest issue was trying to get healthy and getting guys comfortable with their roles on this team. That proved to be a process as junior guard John Vogeler worked his way back from an ankle injury and guys like Brandon Bistodeau, David Krivanek, Chase Kohler and Joe Gorghuber worked their way into expanded roles at the varsity level.
It took a while, but guys from top to bottom seem to have accepted what those roles are. Even Doyle, who came in with a lot of hype after signing with South Dakota State University, realizes that he’s not going to put up huge numbers offensively every night.
He only took seven shots on his way to 11 points against Little Falls. The biggest thing is that he didn’t force anything. Doyle found open teammates out of double teams and also dominated the paint with 17 rebounds and six emphatic blocks.
“Everyone wants to be the scorer on the team,” Doyle said. “But you have to know your role on the team. If they’re doubling me, assists look just as good as points in my book. When they’re doubling me, someone is going to get a wide open shot as long as you play good team ball, work it around, somebody is going to get the open shot.”
* Vogeler continues to impress: That somebody was John Vogeler most of Wednesday night. Doyle called the junior one of the best guards in the Central Lakes Conference, and it’s hard to argue that with the way he’s been playing.
Vogeler finished with 30 points Wednesday and showed that there’s no one easy way to stop him. He opened the game with a couple deep threes and finished with four triples on the night. That came after he hit eight threes in Alexandria’s win over Rocori in the regular-season finale.
“It escalates my confidence pretty high right away when I can hit those early shots,” Vogeler said. “From where I started when I came back from my injury, I was not attacking. I was hesitant. I didn’t have the confidence in my ankle as I do now.”
When the Flyers pressured him on the perimeter, he used his dribble to score a few easy buckets in the lane. Vogeler then put the game away from the free throw line in the closing minutes, hitting 12-of-14 shots from the stripe.
“John, the last few games, obviously he is shooting the lights out from the perimeter,” Witt said. “When you look at the games where he’s healthy and he’s playing at 100 percent, he has been very effective for us…he’s good when he can get to the rim and use his strength to get to the line. Then when he gets that outside shot going, it just adds another dimension to what he’s doing. I’m happy for him that he was able to come back from his injury and play at the level he’s playing at.”
* Bistodeau’s improved play: It’s impossible to ignore how important the improved play of junior guard Brandon Bistodeau has been during Alexandria’s recent run.
The junior guard scored in double figures for the fourth straight game on Wednesday after finishing with 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Ten of those points came in the second half as he took it on himself to be more aggressive going to the basket. He made some big buckets during a stretch where Little Falls just wouldn’t go away.
“He doesn’t even look like the same guy from the beginning of the season,” Doyle said. “He’s changed so much, he’s matured so much.”
The difference is pretty simple – he’s just more confident now. It can be too convenient sometimes for young players to defer to veterans like Doyle and Vogeler. Alexandria needed other guys to be more assertive on the court, and Bistodeau has taken on that challenge.
“Just get confidence, that’s all you need,” he said. “About the first half of the season, I wasn’t confident and then I got confident and it rolled from there. Logan and John are great. They put up points. They’re our team leaders. I like to be a leader too, and it’s great to be a third scorer.”
Midway through the season, Witt was looking for some of these guys in a big junior class to seize the opportunity that they had in their new roles with this team. Bistodeau seems to have done that, and the improvement he has made hasn’t gone unnoticed by his head coach.
“He’s made more strides offensively than any player we have had in five years,” Witt said. “He just continues to get better. He can score the ball, he’s been getting to the rim. He’s been shooting the ball better, taking care of the basketball, and he’s been our best perimeter defender all year long. So it’s nice to see the offensive side of things come along. He’s playing at a high level right now and with a lot of confidence.”
* Top-seeded Fergus Falls awaits on Saturday: The challenge for this team now is to not get content with its run of recent success.
There is an opportunity for the Cardinals to make everyone forget about how they started if they can continue to play well in what looks like a wide open section. The Otters are up next after they dismantled Detroit Lakes 77-54 on Wednesday night.
“I think they’re a quality basketball team,” Witt said. “We had close games with them, and we’re a different team now, as are they. We have to contain [Mike] Millard and [Jackson] McAllister and [Austin] Rund, their three main scorers. I like our match-up with them. Milard has hurt us a little bit more than we’d like in the past, so we’ll have to do some things with him. But I think it’s going to be a heck of a game again. They’re all going to be tough at this point.”
Fergus Falls has already beaten Alexandria twice this season. The Otters won 52-51 on December 11 and 57-52 on January 24. They will take on a much more confident team from Alexandria the third time around.
“Witt has said that it’s the most wide open section, and I believe it too,” Doyle said. “We’re the number one team that people don’t want to be facing right now. No one remembers how you did at the beginning of the season, only how you end the season. We’d rather lose in the beginning and finish out strong here and bring home a section championship.”