Additional info and photos from Alexandria’s game at the state tournament

The Alexandria boys’ basketball team made sure to point out that they weren’t satisfied with just getting to the state tournament, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t appreciate the experience after a loss to Austin on Wednesday afternoon.

Alexandria’s Joe Gorghuber works his way around an Austin defender during the Class AAA quarterfinals on Wednesday afternoon. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

The Packers were the second-place team in Class AAA last season and have three seniors in Bret Lukes, Ajuda Nywesh and Zach Wessels who all averaged right around 14 points per game this year. All three of those guys carried the load for Austin on Wednesday as Wessels had 23, Nywesh added 15 and Lukes finished with 10.

“They’re pretty athletic,” Alexandria’s Brandon Bistodeau said. “It’s pretty tough to stop them. There’s not much you can do.”

They ultimately proved to be the difference for Austin as the rest of the Packers team combined to score just 13 points. You can read my entire story on yesterday’s game and the reaction from Bistodeau, John Vogeler and head coach Forrest Witt on our website.

Here is more of what they had to say on their season and yesterday’s game, along with a bunch of photos. Williams Arena is always a fun place to shoot pictures with the elevated floor providing some pretty cool angles.

Junior Kris Setterstrom finds an open teammate as the Cardinals try to find an opening in Austin’s 1-2-2 zone on Wednesday. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

*  Getting a chance to play on the Williams Arena court is something many kids in Minnesota dream of and the players on this team didn’t take that for granted.

“It was awesome,” Bistodeau said. “It’s a dream as a kid. We finally got to play on this court. At the end of the day it’s just a game, but it was an exciting moment.”

* The Cardinals knew that Austin was going to run a 1-2-2 zone press pretty much the whole game, and it took a little while for them to get comfortable against it.

Alexandria had four turnovers in the first three minutes and didn’t score until 4 minutes, 59 seconds into the game when Vogeler hit a three from the top of the key.

“We practiced it all week so we knew it was coming,” Bistodeau said. “It was a little tough to get used to, but we got used to it. It slowed us down a little bit.”

The Cardinals broke the zone in the second half by being aggressive pushing the ball up the court. They got a few buckets in transition and it helped lead to a 21-6 run that pulled them to within one point at 43-42 with 8 minutes, 24 seconds left.

Alexandria head coach Forrest Witt watches his team run through the offense during the second half against the Packers. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

“They’ve played it all year and they play it very well,” Witt said of Austin’s zone. “You give them credit for that, but our JV got us prepared and I thought we did attack it pretty well. We had some opportunities that we missed, and I thought in transition we did a good job. Not a great job, but we wanted to push the basketball hard and not let them get set up in their 1-2-2.”

* Austin’s senior guard Ajuda Nywesh got hot in the first half on his way to 11 points by the break. He hit three triples in the half and showed off his handle and athleticism in finding ways to get off his shot.

Nywesh is 6’1″ and has a thin frame, so the Cardinals wanted to be a little more physical while guarding him in the second half. Vogeler drew that challenge and helped his team hold Nywesh to four points after the break.

John Vogeler goes up for a layup against Austin’s Ajuda Nywesh. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

“We just try to stay together,” Vogeler said. “We’re switching a lot of ball screens out there, and we went through the game plan. We know he’s a shooter but sometimes great players make plays and you tip your hat off to him. I just tried to get more physical with him. I had two fouls so I couldn’t put myself at risk and get into foul trouble, but yeah, just try to be more physical with him.”

* Witt was happy with the way his team responded after being down by 16 early in the second half on Wednesday.

The Cardinals’ answer to that 8-0 run by the Packers was a 21-6 run of their own. They had two possessions with a chance to take the lead in a 43-42 game that resulted in a missed jumper and a turnover. Vogeler said the team was confident that they could get over the hump at that point, but that Austin wasn’t going to be a team that would fold down the stretch.

Chase Kohler searches for an opening during the second half on Wednesday. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

“I think everybody felt confident but we knew they were going to make another run after that,” Vogeler said. “Everybody here is good, so you can’t just shut them down. We knew they were going to make some plays when we were down one. I think that’s what they did. We just couldn’t pull it off.”

* The loss on Wednesday marked the end of the careers for four senior starters in Bistodeau, Vogeler, Chase Kohler and David Krivanek.

Witt praised the effort of those guys and how they helped the program take the next step this season.

Senior David Krivanek goes between the defense of the Packers’ Gach Gach (left) and Noah Brehmer during the closing minutes of the AAA quarterfinals. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)

“Your seniors are always going to be the guys you look to to lead your basketball team and those guys certainly did that,” Witt said. “They left their mark on the basketball program. We tell the kids, it’s bigger than any one individual, it’s bigger than any one group of seniors. But they can be proud and happy of the job they did in being the first team to get us to state here in 12 years and in our tenure as coaches. We’re extremely proud of them and what the future of Alexandria basketball is.”

 

Is Alexandria the team to beat in the 8AAA field?

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.

Senior Logan Doyle passed out of a double-team during the first half of Alexandria’s win over Little Falls on Wednesday. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“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.

Junior John Vogeler released a jumper over the outstretched arm of the Flyers’ Collin Eckman during the first half on Wednesday. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“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.

Brandon Bistodeau took the ball to the basket for two of his 10 points in the second half against Little Falls. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“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.”

Alex boys ready to take on a wide open field

Almost every team heading into tonight’s opening round of the Section 8AAA boys’ basketball tournament is likely thinking the same thing – why not us?

The Cardinals (12-12) and Little Falls (19-7) are both in that position as they get set to face off in the quarterfinals after things were delayed a day by snow on Tuesday. Alexandria will come in playing as well as any team in the section after winning seven of its last eight games. And in a field where the top seeds are 14-12 in the South (Sartell) and 16-10 in the North (Fergus Falls), why can’t Alexandria be the one hoisting a section championship trophy on March 14?

“Our section is wide open,” Cardinals head coach Forrest Witt said. “I really believe there are five or six teams that could win the section title. We understand what we’re capable of, but we also need to understand that nothing will be given to us. Everything is going to be hard-earned. We need to continue to build off what we’ve done over the last half of the season, as we have seen tremendous growth from our players.”

Junior guard John Vogeler went up for two of his 16 points in his second game back from an ankle injury against Willmar on January 17. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Any team that is playing its best basketball at this time of year is making the kind of progress that a coach wants to see. Witt thought there could be some growing pains coming into the season with some new players adjusting to varsity around this team’s two leading scorers from last year in Logan Doyle and John Vogeler.

Having those two back seemed to be a good area to build around, but those plans took an immediate hit with an injury to Vogeler. He missed almost one-third of the season with an ankle injury before returning against Big lake on January 12. Even after his return, it took a little while to get back into the flow.

Slowly but surely, the pieces seem to have fallen into place. It wasn’t going to take much. Of the 12 losses Alexandria has, 11 have come by 10 points or less. Instead of dwelling on letting those close games slip away, the Cardinals kept believing that with a little improvement, those losses would turn into wins.

“We are playing with a high level of confidence right now,” Witt said. “The kids are executing pretty well in their specific roles on this team. Experience has been a huge key in our late-season run. With several players seeing big minutes for the first time this year, it just took some experience and game situations to adjust to the level of play.”

Perhaps the biggest indication of a turnaround for this group came in a 59-54 win in Moorhead on February 15. The Spuds handed the Cardinals their worst loss of the season in the opener on November 30. Moorhead’s Aaron Lien had 30 points that night and fellow senior Austin Nelson added 21 to lead their team to a 69-42 win.

Junior guard Brandon Bistodeau got past the defense in a game against Brainerd earlier this season. Bistodeau has scored in double figures during the last three regular-season games. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Alexandria held the Spuds to their second lowest point total of the season in the rematch. Vogeler led the offense with 18 points, while Brandon Bistodeau had 15 and David Krivanek added 12. Doyle also controlled the paint with 17 rebounds to go along with his eight points that night.

Bistodeau’s play late in the season has been a good sign for this team. The junior guard has been in double figures over the final three regular-season games. He capped that off with 19 points on 6-of-6 shooting from the field and a 7-of-8 night from the free throw line in a 76-61 win over a 14-12 Rocori team last Friday. Bistodeau’s play is an example of guys getting more comfortable with each other as the season has gone on.

“The chemistry we are playing with has been a big factor in our improved play,” Witt said. “The kids are playing together and for one another. The level of trust they have for reach other on the court has improved greatly.”

Getting those contributions from all over the court will be even more important now as the Cardinals try to carry their late-season success into the playoffs. They know they need to play their best basketball starting tonight if they want to make a run. But in a field where any team can win on any given night, they have given themselves reason to believe that a title is there for the taking.

Osakis ready for rematch with Sauk Centre

The Osakis girls know that a talented team looking for revenge awaits them in the Section 6AA North semifinals at St. John’s University Saturday afternoon.

Fifth-ranked Sauk Centre has lost just two games this season, but one of those was a coming out party for the Silverstreaks on January 8. Osakis held the Mainstreeters to 21 points below their season average that night in a 49-40 win.

That let the rest of the section know there could be another contender in the 6AA field come tournament time. There’s no doubt that Sauk Centre will have that game in the back of its mind when the two teams step on the court for a 3:30 tip on Saturday afternoon.

“They’re going to want to win really bad because we’re one of their two losses,” Osakis junior guard Annalise Savageau said after leading her team to a 65-41 win over Long Prairie-Grey Eagle on Tuesday night. “They’re going to want to beat us. We just have to play good defense like we did last time. We have a pretty good defensive team, and we always work hard. That usually helps.”

Junior Brooke Sorenson looked for an open teammate early in the first half on Tuesday. Sorenson was one of six players for Osakis that had at least five points against LPGE. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

The Silverstreaks know it will take their best effort to beat Sauk Centre for a second time, and it’s a group that seems ready to lay it all on the line. Osakis played loose and confident in running past LPGE in the tournament opener last night. The Silverstreaks once again used a balanced attack and their pressure defense to run away with things against the Thunder.

The first half belonged to junior forward Madi Forsell as she finished with 11 of her 13 points in the opening 18 minutes. Savageau took over from there, scoring 14 of her team-high 18 in the second half. Sprinkle in 14 points from freshman Brittney Sadlemyer and you had the makings of another typical night for this team.

“In our big games, it’s been like that all year long,” head coach Pat Kalpin said of the balance. “Somebody has always stepped up. Everybody knows Annalise is our leading scorer. That’s not a secret for anybody, but you never know which one of these other girls will step up. That’s a great luxury to have for us right now.”

They will likely need that kind of balance again in order to get past Sauk Centre. The Mainstreeters are plenty used to these kind of big games in March. They are coming off three straight trips to the Class AA state tournament, including a second-place finish last season.

The Mainstreeters lost some great talent off that team like all-state guard Kali Peschel, who is in her freshman season at the University of Iowa. They still have plenty of weapons, though. That includes senior Macy Weller, who was one of three Sauk Centre players named to last year’s Class AA all-tournament team.

“We’ve got to be ready for a war against them,” Kalpin said. “You know they’re going to give you every ounce of effort that they have. We’ve got to be ready to do the same. If we don’t, it’s going to be tough on us.”

Kalpin said he expects another low-scoring, defensive game like these two teams played the first time around. Both programs have been in every game this season by using defense as the backbone of their success. Osakis and Sauk Centre are each holding opponents to an impressive 39 points per game.

“We’ve got to be ready to play defense,” Kalpin said. “That’s the bottom line. They’re as good of a defensive team as there is out there. They help well, and they make you work for every shot you have. I think last time we only took about 40 shots to their 44-45 shots. It was a really, slow it down, defensive game, and I don’t expect anything different.”

That means this could come down to which team can take advantage of some of the little things – scoring a couple easy buckets in transition, making free throws. This is the time of year where every team knows it needs to be at its best if it wants to survive and advance.

“Kalpin just told us that every game we have to come out and play our best,” Forsell said. “We have to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season. If we just go out and play our game and do that, I think we can go pretty far, even in this tough section.”

All Kalpin is asking of his girls is that they give every bit of effort they have on Saturday. Even at 22-3, Osakis knows what team is expected to win this weekend. But the Silverstreaks weren’t expected to win the first time these two teams faced each other, either.

“We’re the underdogs,” Kalpin said. “To me, there was more pressure on [the LPGE] game than on Saturday. Today, we weren’t the underdogs. Saturday, we are. On paper, we’re not supposed to win that game in a lot of people’s eyes. But Sauk knows we can beat them because we’ve obviously done that.”

Freshman Brittney Sadlemyer scored over the defense of LPGE’s Samantha Zastrow on Tuesday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Extras * A player to watch on this Osakis team over the next few years is definitely Brittney Sadlemyer. The 5’10″ freshman hardly played like a timid, young player off the bench on her way to 14 points on Tuesday night.

Sadlemyer is impressive in the way she carries herself on the court for such a young player. She already shows off a variety of post moves and welcomes the contact that comes with playing in the post. She has a knack for finishing strong around the basket.

“She’s that strong girl that’s not afraid to initiate contact,” Kalpin said. “She’s not afraid to run through somebody. You have to have kids like that on your team. Regardless of how rough she looks at times. It’s not cheap, but she’s a physical player. She gets a rebound and they don’t take it away from her very often.”

* It really is amazing to see how loaded the Section 6AA bracket is. For proof, look no further than Albany being the fourth seed in the North subsection. The Huskies are 24-3 and ranked seventh in the latest Class AA polls.

The four teams left from the North (Osakis 22-3; Staples-Motley 20-5; Sauk Centre 24-2 and Albany) are a combined 90-13 this year. Whoever makes it out of that will likely have a 22-4 New London-Spicer team or a 21-4 Eden Valley-Watkins team waiting for them in the section finals next Friday.

“I’m not going to make a case and say it’s the best subsection in the state,” Kalpin said. “But if you look at it on paper, it looks pretty tough. Four teams in our section, four out of 16 teams, are ranked in the top 10. Three in our half. Then we’re right behind them with 22 wins.”

Whichever team makes it through will definitely have earned its ticket to Minneapolis.

Cards know bigger challenges await them starting this weekend

The Alexandria girls’ basketball team took care of business against fourth-seeded Little Falls on Tuesday night the way good teams do when they are a heavy favorite.

Alexandria dominated from the get-go, storming out to a 20-2 lead that forced a Little Falls timeout with 9:47 left in the half. The Flyers didn’t even have a field goal through almost 11 minutes before Melanie Dorn finally hit a three.

“I think with every team, we have pretty good defense,” senior center Kalli Bowser said after scoring 10 points. “We just try to keep our hands up and frustrate teams. We knew they didn’t have a lot of size, so we knew that would be to our advantage. We just had to get after them.”

Bowser and junior guard Amanda Christianson were the two players in double figures for an Alexandria team that had 11 players score in all. Christianson helped control the game with her ability to do a little bit of everything. She hit three triples, added six free throws and got the ball in the middle of the lane where she created easy looks for her and her teammates.

Junior guard Amanda Christianson followed through on her release during the second half on Tuesday night. Christianson finished with a game-high 27 points. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“I was feeling really good,” Christianson said. “I just knew I wanted to play another game this season so I was trying to come out with a lot of confidence and energy. My teammates did a good job of getting me the ball, so I have to give all the credit to them.”

It was a win that was fully expected coming into the night. Now the Cardinals know a greater challenge awaits them this Saturday when they go to Moorhead to take on a 25-2 Thief River Falls team in the section semifinals.

The Prowlers’ only losses have come to a 27-0 Fergus Falls team and by one point to a 19-5 Crookston team. They feature some quality shooters in girls like junior guard Brooke Tagglie and senior Brooke Anderson. Alexandria head coach Wendy Kohler called them long and athletic and a group that likes to get out and pressure teams with a 1-3-1 defense, much like the Cardinals.

“We’re excited for the challenge,” Kohler said. “At this point, this group is confident. They’ll be well prepared and ready to go. We’ll take care of ourselves, certainly, but we’ll be well prepared. The girls will be very aware of the game plan, who their scorers are and what we need to do offensively and defensively to get things done.”

Kohler called it a similar Thief River Falls team to the one Alexandria faced a year ago. Cardinal fans will remember that game as one that Alexandria controlled completely after a late first-half run. The Prowlers came in with just three losses but proved to be no match for an Alexandria team that got out and ran its way to a 69-46 win.

The Cardinals were aided by what was perhaps the best game of Lauren Trumm’s career that night. She was dominant in every way, finishing with 36 points, 12 steals, seven assists and five rebounds.

Like last year, the Prowlers once again will come into Saturday night’s game with a great record. Their 25 wins has them ranked eighth in the latest Class AAA polls. Unlike last year, Alexandria doesn’t have Trumm to lead the way. But that doesn’t mean this team isn’t equally as confident in its ability to get to another section finals game.

“It’s just all in,” Kohler said. “Everybody has to give it everything they have every game, every possession, one stop, one rebound. Then we move on and advance. I just think this group has an internal drive and a Cardinal legacy, what they want to leave in this program. They’re not ready for their season to be over, and they’re going to do everything they can to take care of business one game at a time.”

It’s a group that is also driven by the opportunity to face conference and section rival Fergus Falls one more time. The Otters are the clear favorites in this section after 27 straight wins this season. They are the top-ranked team in the AAA polls and have the size, guard play and experience to contend for a state title.

That’s what either Alexandria or Thief River Falls will likely have waiting for them on the other side of the bracket after this weekend. The Cardinals know it would be a challenge, but it’s one they hope to get if they can put together a good game against the Prowlers.

“They have pretty lethal shooters when they’re hitting threes,” Bowser said of the Otters. “We would have to play really good defense. They have a lot of skill on that team. We’ll just have to see what it comes down to. That would be fun [to play them again]. And to have the outcome be in our favor the third time would be really nice.”

Have the Alex boys turned a corner?

The Alexandria boys’ basketball team has had its share of tough losses this season. Last Friday night, the Cardinals got a win that indicates they are capable of putting those games behind them.

Alexandria’s 59-54 win in Moorhead came against a 13-7 Spuds team that had already handed the Cardinals their most lopsided loss of the season on November 30. I was at that game and Moorhead was able to do whatever it wanted offensively on its way to a 69-42 win on Alexandria’s home court.

Alexandria’s junior guard Brandon Bistodeau went up for a shot in the lane during the season opener against Moorhead on November 30. Bistodeau had 15 points to help the Cardinals win the rematch with the Spuds last week. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

That wasn’t the case on Friday night as the Cardinals held Moorhead to its second lowest point total of the season. Star forward Aaron Lien had a game-high 31 points but only six players scored in all. Austin Nelson, who had 21 the first time these two teams met, was held to just six in the rematch.

“Defensively, the kids executed our game plan very well in two critical areas – defending ball screens and cleaning up the defensive glass,” Alexandria head coach Forrest Witt said on Monday. “As we approach the end of our regular season, we like the progress we’ve made.”

The Cardinals’ defensive effort has been the primary reason Alexandria has rattled off four straight wins since a 56-54 loss to a 20-1 Brainerd team on February 8. Since then, the Cardinals have allowed just 45 points per game in wins over Bemidji, Morris Area, Sauk Rapids and Moorhead.

“Our attention to detail and understanding of player roles has been a positive mark over the past three weeks,” Witt said. “The kids have developed confidence in themselves and one another. It’s fun to see them rewarded with this recent success because for the most part, they have responded to the challenges and committed to remaining focused on getting better each day.”

It has also helps having junior guard John Vogeler healthy and back in the mix. He wasn’t in uniform in the season opener against the Spuds because of an ankle injury.

His presence was felt in the rematch as he hit four threes and led Alexandria with 18 points. Junior guard Brandon Bistodeau had a nice game with 15 points and three assists. David Krivanek added 12 points and Logan Doyle had eight points and 17 of his team’s 35 rebounds.

Vogeler had a positive approach when I talked to him after a close loss to Brainerd a couple weeks ago that dropped this team to 5-11. He said they were still confident in their ability to get things going in the right direction. The key would be cleaning up little things like taking charges and playing team defense to get important stops.

Credit this team for putting those words into action. Four straight wins, including a win over a team that beat them by 27 earlier in the season, seems to point toward the Cardinals playing their best basketball heading into the most important part of the year.

“It’s a heck of a long season,” Witt said. “The good teams find ways to weather the storm by improving and correcting the mistakes that can be corrected over the course of a season.”

Osakis boys needed a win like they got over Brandon-Evansville

The Osakis boys’ basketball team needed to prove to itself that it could win the kind of game it ended up winning last night.

The Silverstreaks have seen a lot of games get away from them in the second half this season and almost saw that same outcome against Brandon-Evansville on Tuesday. Osakis took a 37-26 lead after going on a 12-1 run out of the half.

Slowly but surely, the Chargers started to chip away. Blake Satterlie and Patrick Schaffer hit a couple big threes to get Brandon-Evansville back in it. Freshman Skyler Quinn then completed the comeback by scoring six straight points to give his team a 45-44 lead with 20 seconds left.

Osakis head coach Matt Hoelscher talked things over with junior guard Hunter Scherr before the start of the second half on Tuesday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Osakis hasn’t been in too many late-game situations like this during the course of the season, but on this night, they made a series of plays that made the difference between a win and a loss in a 48-45 game.

“It’s nice for our guys to play in games like this because they learn how to play,” Osakis head coach Matt Hoelscher said. “They know that every possession counts. A little turnover when we’re up eight with four minutes to play is still big. A missed free throw, missed offensive rebound; guys are learning. They‘re learning and they’re playing together as a team.”

Drew Fearing started that stretch by being aggressive off the dribble instead of settling for a jump shot with his team down by one. He drove the lane and was fouled with around three seconds left. Fearing calmly drained the first free throw of a one-and-one situation before missing the second.

The Chargers got the rebound and called a timeout. At worst, they thought they were heading to overtime. Brandon-Evansville designed a play to hit John Haseman on a deep pass as he broke to the other end of the court. The ball never got there, though.

Hoelscher brought in 6’3″ senior John Piekarski off the bench to guard the inbounds pass. He hadn’t been used much that night, but he ended up making one of the biggest plays by tipping the pass.

That allowed Hunter Scherr to play the role of hero. The junior guard gathered the ball between the three-point line and mid-court. He took a couple quick dribbles before shooting a running three that twirled around the rim and hit off the backboard before falling through after the buzzer sounded.

“Before, when I was on the bench, I was thinking the whole time that it was going to come down to that,” Scherr said of the last-second shot. “It flew by pretty fast. I was hoping it was dropping, but when it dropped, it was probably one of the greatest moments ever.”

Junior guard Hunter Scherr looked for an opening against Brandon-Evansville’s Patrick Schaffer on Tuesday night. Scherr hit the game-winning three as the buzzer sounded to give his team its third win of the season. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Scherr’s teammates tackled him near the three-point line to celebrate a win they hope can do wonders for their confidence. This is a team that hasn’t had a lot to cheer about this season after winning one of its first 17 games. The Silverstreaks have now won two of their last three, but it’s how they won that had their head coach excited after the game.

“It all starts with a chain of events,” Hoelscher said. “With Drew making that first big free throw. He misses the first one, it’s a whole different ballgame. He makes that, we get John Piekarski, sub him in, and he gets the tip. That gives Hunter a chance and it’s awesome. Those are things that our guys need to get this program going.”

The Silverstreaks looked a lot better than the first time I saw them in a loss to Bertha-Hewitt on December 20. It started on defense for them last night, where they held Haseman to just 14 points and eight rebounds. Haseman is one of the better posts players in the area, and the Silverstreaks used a box-and-one to keep him from getting the ball in great scoring positions most of the night.

“With him, we knew we couldn’t stop him,” Hoelscher said. “We just hoped that he wasn’t hitting shots…we just said that someone else has to beat us. We know Haseman is going to get his points, some points, but we want him to take 20-30 shots. We did a good job of keeping it away from him. Kilar [Zimmel] and Drew did a heck of a job dogging him all night.”

Those are signs that this team is making progress as it reaches the final month of the season. The Silverstreaks might not have been able to bounce back from losing a late lead earlier this year. On Tuesday, they proved to themselves that they can win these kinds of games by fighting until the final buzzer.

“Usually in our games, we’ll play good one half and we’re down the next,” Scherr said. “This game, we played good throughout the whole game. It’s taken a little while, but we’re getting way better as we go on.”

Osakis doesn’t deny the importance of beating Upsala

Sometimes head coaches and even players themselves will downplay a big win during the course of a regular season. The standard message is that it means nothing if they don’t carry it over into the next game.

Osakis players and head coach Pat Kalpin said things along those same lines after last night’s 72-62 win over conference foe Upsala. But they didn’t shy away from exactly how much this meant to them after snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Cardinals.

“This was one of my goals for the season was just to beat Upsala,” junior guard Annalise Savageau said. “We have lost to them the past three or four years, and we wanted it super bad. I think this helps us because Upsala, they’re a class lower, but they’re still in the top-10.”

Upsala (17-2, 10-1) came into the night ranked seventh in the latest Class A polls and sporting a 56-game winning streak against Prairie Conference opponents. Osakis (17-2, 10-1) never looked intimidated by any of that.

Osakis head coach Pat Kalpin drew up a play during a second-half timeout with his team holding a double-digit lead over Upsala on Monday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

The Silverstreaks were dead set on playing their best game of the season from the very beginning. Brooke Sorenson set the tone with two quick three-pointers that led to a 10-0 lead before Upsala had to burn its first timeout. The Cardinals battled back behind 10 quick points from star guard Aimee Pelzer. They took their only lead of the night at 21-19 before Osakis’ sophomore guard Mackenzie Staloch flipped the momentum by scoring all eight of her points late in the half. Savageau added a late three-pointer right before the buzzer to give the Silverstreaks a 35-31 lead at the break.

“It was a big relief,” Sorenson said. “When you come out making shots, it kind of gets things rolling. We have to get out early and you can’t really have any stretches where you stop working hard.”

Kalpin challenged his girls, and junior forward Madi Forsell in particular, at halftime. Forsell was instrumental in helping Osakis to a win over Sauk Centre earlier this season, and Kalpin didn’t feel she was being aggressive enough on offense in the first half.

“I was pretty stern with her,” Kalpin said. “She’s a great shooter. She is just kind of a hidden talent that we have…They were not respecting her shot, and I just felt that for us to win, she needs to start shooting the basketball. I know she can get on a roll and knock them down. When you get one kid like that doing that, it’s just amazing what it does for the morale of your basketball team.”

Junior forward Madi Forsell looked for an open teammate during the second half. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Forsell responded to her coach’s challenge in a big way. She hit from inside and out on her way to leading Osakis to its biggest lead of the night at 57-41 with 10:17 left in the game. The Cardinals focused their attention on Savageau and Sorenson after they scored 11 and 10, respectively, in the opening half. That opened the door for Forsell over the final 18 minutes as she finished with a team-high 20 points.

“We knew we had to come out with our best game all year,” Forsell said. “I was just trying to be confident. We were able to execute when we needed to and everyone just knew what they were doing, so we were able to mesh together.”

The Silverstreaks were efficient on offense all night. They shot 54 percent overall (25-of-46), went 5-of-11 from the three-point line and 17-of-23 on free throws. Savageau finished with 16 points, Sorenson added 14, while Staloch and freshman forward Brittney Sadlemyer each added eight.

That depth is a testament to the growth of this team. These are the kind of players Kalpin thought many of these girls would turn into, even as they took their lumps as 8th and 9th graders getting their feet wet at the varsity level a few years ago.

Junior forward Brooke Sorenson looked for an open teammate from the top of the key during the first half on Monday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“I envisioned this,” he said. “I thought coming into the year, we could be a really, really good basketball team. What I think and what actually happens is sometimes two different things, but I see the talent in this group, and it seems like it’s been a different girl stepping up game in and game out.”

Kalpin saw the potential in his team even if the rest of the state didn’t really see it coming. Osakis hasn’t been in the Class AA state rankings all season despite an impressive 17-2 record and a nice win over a now 16-1 Sauk Centre team. The only two losses for the Silverstreaks came against Upsala on December 20 and against undefeated and Class A’s third ranked team Parkers Prairie.

“I knew we were going to be good this year because we have a lot of varsity experience,” Savageau said. “We know what to expect and we have played a lot of good teams. I thought we could beat teams like this.”

The rest of the Section 6AA field has no choice but to start taking notice as well. This team has proven through this point in the season that it should be considered a serious threat come tournament time.

“I think knocking off Sauk was the first step,” Kalpin said. “That proved to them that we could play with some of the best teams in the state. Our two losses are to Upsala and Parkers Prairie, two high ranked and good basketball teams. I think those losses, especially against Parkers Prairie, has probably done more for us than any other game. Since that game, the whole team has had a different mindset it seems.”

The win over Upsala last night was this team’s seventh straight since that loss to Parkers Prairie on January 15. The victory over the Cardinals was the biggest of the bunch. The Silverstreaks now control their own destiny to capture at least a share of the Prairie Conference title for the first time since 2009. Couple that with a perfect 8-0 record against section opponents this season, and this team’s confidence is as high as it’s been coming down the stretch.

“It’s through the roof,” Forsell said. “[Coach] always says he wants us to be playing our best at the end and to improve throughout the year. I think we’re just getting stronger and stronger with each practice and each game.”

Osakis boys to play at Target Center on Saturday

The Osakis boys’ basketball team will take advantage of an opportunity to play at the Target Center in Minneapolis this Saturday when the Silverstreaks meet up with Minnewaska.

Lakers’ head coach Todd Beecher first got a hold of Osakis head coach Matt Hoelscher to talk about the possibility of moving the game to the NBA venue. Hoelscher said every high school coach receives an e-mail from the Timberwolves organization about the possibility of playing a game there.

Osakis head coach Matt Hoelscher watched from the sidelines during a game against Bertha-Hewitt earlier this season. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Both coaches are in the early stages of building their programs as first-year head coaches. The Silverstreaks are currently 1-14 and the Lakers are 5-10, but both coaches are enthusiastic about trying to turn their programs into winners. An opportunity to play a game at the Target Center and catch a Timberwolves game afterwards can be a part of that process.

“ I thought this would be a great time to get some excitement in our program by playing on that court,” Hoelscher said. “We get to watch the T-wolves afterwards too. Most of our guys have never been to a T-wolves game, so this will be a great experience for them and a good team building day.”

The two teams will tip off at 1 p.m. on Saturday. The Timberwolves game against New Orleans will tip at around seven that night.

Alex boys hope to get on a role with Vogeler back in the mix

Junior guard John Vogeler said that things still don’t feel quite right after his second game back from an ankle injury last night. But the fact that he’s finally back is a step in the right direction for Alexandria.

The 6’3″ sharpshooter showed flashes of what he’s capable of in a 66-60 loss to Willmar. He showed off his range by hitting two deep threes in the second half as Alexandria and Willmar were jockeying back-and-forth in a close game. Vogeler finished with 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting.

Alexandria’s John Vogeler went up for a lay-up over Willmar’s Kyler Johnson during the first half on Thursday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“It’s not like last year, that’s for sure,” he said of how he felt. “I’m just not quite used to the game and the motions and how fast the tempo is right now. That’s why I was rushing shots and missing shots, but I think I should get better.”

Even with him back in the lineup, Alexandria fell victim to an all-too familiar script last night. Willmar got out to a 9-2 lead and took a 31-26 advantage into the break.

The home Cardinals showed an ability to battle back in the second half. They got two big dunks from Logan Doyle, including one on a lob from Chase Kohler where Doyle went up and caught the ball at its highest point with one hand before throwing it down to make it a 46-46 game.

One would think that would be the spark Alexandria needed to grab control of the momentum. Instead, it was Willmar that responded with a 9-1 run to take a 55-47 lead with 4:25 left. The Cardinals got back to within three on two David Krivanek free throws in the closing seconds. On the ensuing in-bounds, Willmar’s Austin Rambow got loose on a run-out as he put the game away with two of his game-high 24 points on an easy lay-up.

“From the beginning of the season, we’ve improved,” Krivanek said after finishing with a team-high 17 points. “Every single game, except for that Moorhead game, we’re right there. We just got to finish it out.”

Junior guard David Krivanek hit a jumper in the first half for two of his team-high 17 points against Willmar. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Krivanek is right about Alexandria being in almost every game this season. Five of the Cardinals seven losses have come by single digits. The Cardinals have had their chances in the second half of all those games but haven’t been able to close them out.

“It’s not always down the stretch,” Vogeler said. “It should be through the whole game. We got to be executing plays right, we got to be knowing what our roles are. That’s got to be throughout the game. If we do that throughout the game, we should have no problems closing games.”

Having Vogeler back in the mix should only help that as this team tries to overcome its slow start. The Cardinals had high hopes coming into this season and 3-7 overall and 1-4 in the Central Lakes Conference isn’t what they had in mind. They have 14 games left in the regular season to try and turn things around before playoffs.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the start,” Krivanek said. “But I know we’re going to get better. We’ve been getting better. We’ve just got to get going.”