Conference races are starting to come into focus now midway through the winter season, and the Ashby and Brandon-Evansville boys basketball teams both look like contenders in the Little Eight Conference.
Both teams were unbeaten in league play when they met up in Ashby on Friday night, and it’s the Arrows (8-3, 6-0 LEC) that left that way after a 61-57 win.
“We’ll see. I think we grew up a lot with this,” Ashby head coach John Holsten said. “We had some kids make plays who haven’t been in this situation before. We can only learn from it.”
Both teams exchanged shots down the stretch in a back-and-forth contest.
Ashby’s Jaden Norby got a steal and layup that gave his team a 59-54 lead, but B-E senior guard Keagan Schiele drilled a three on the next trip down the court. That cut the Chargers’ deficit to 59-57 with 21.6 seconds left.
Brandon-Evansville fouled senior Noah Johnson on the ensuing inbounds to send him to the line for a one-and-one. Johnson missed the free throw, but sophomore 6-foot, 5-inch forward Jacob Cook got the rebound and put it up and in to seal the win.
“I knew if I pushed down and tried to get as deep as I could into the paint that I could have a good chance to get the board if there was a miss,” Cook said. “I knew we were up by one possession, but I had done it before and I took the opportunity to go right back up with it.”
The Arrows had to prove it on the court that they could contend in the conference this year after losing some talented seniors from a 16-8 team last winter. Ashby has done that behind experienced upperclassmen in Johnson and Norby as their leaders.
Starting alongside them is a trio of sophomores. Guard Torin Olson (11.1 PPG), Cook (14.9 PPG) and forward Hunter Norby (15.5 PPG) were Ashby’s leading scorers coming into the night. Johnson (10.2 PPG) and Jaden Norby (9.6 PPG) give the Arrows nearly five players who average double figures.
All of them had their moments on Friday. Cook had 18 points and three big buckets down the stretch. Olson knocked down three triples on his way to 11 points. Holsten was impressed with the mental toughness that both guys displayed in a close game.
“Me and Torin Olson, last year we weren’t even sitting varsity,” Cook said. “I think me and him really grinded this summer to get our bodies in shape and get better to have a varsity role. Once the season came, I think we got the recognition we deserve, and now we’re starting to roll. We’re used to that varsity pace, and getting more used to it every game.”
The emergence of those young players has helped Ashby to four straight wins, but the play of their experienced center stood out to both head coaches on Friday. Jaden Norby, who stands 6-foot, 4 inches and weighs 230 pounds, had a game-high 21 points.
“He was an absolute leader in every facet of the game,” Holsten said. “He made sure our offense did OK. He made sure our defense was locked down a bit, and he made sure everyone joined him because he was getting himself on the floor. I think the world of the kid. He’s a consummate leader. He really is.”
Brandon-Evansville head coach Trent Hintermeister lauded the effort that Norby played with that made the difference for the Arrows.
“This is no disrespect to our players, but Ashby deserved to win the game,” Hintermeister said. “There was a couple plays that I think defined the game. They were made by Jaden Norby. He wanted it so bad. I’m not saying our guys didn’t because I thought we played hard, but for a 6’4,” 200-whatever he is to be on the floor as much as he is, he showed his heart.”
There were multiple times throughout the game where Norby muscled in shots around the rim through contact or hustled to win a battle for a loose ball.
“Jaden specifically is kind of in a league of his own,” Hintermeister said. “He’s tall, he’s strong, he’s big, but he’s somehow still very athletic. He’s quick and he has good hands. I could sit here all night, so when you start with a guy like that, that’s really awesome. It was just a really fun high school basketball game.”
Hintermeister was proud of the way his guys didn’t quit, while lamenting giving up a few offensive rebounds near the end. Ashby led 52-45 before back-to-back Titus Fuller and Marshall Riedel buckets at the rim got the Chargers to within 52-51 with 2:05 left.
Ashby had an answer for each B-E rally. Cook hit a jumper from the elbow with less than two minutes left that made it a three-point game. The Chargers’ Tyler Bitzan got an easy layup after a turnover, but again the Arrows scored as Norby found Cook slashing to the rim for a basket.
“We’ve won some close games this year and now we’ve lost a couple,” Hintermeister said. “We were really happy coming into this game with how we played Tuesday. Our legs looked a little slower. We made some decisions we haven’t made in a while that hurt us a little, but we’re not even halfway done yet. We’re still getting better.”
The Chargers are 7-3 now and 4-1 in the Little Eight Conference. Ashby is two games up in the win column on both Brandon-Evansville and Parkers Prairie (10-1, 4-0) in the conference, but they are not getting too far ahead of themselves.
“We have a tough stretch coming up with all away games,” Cook said. “At Parkers, who is almost undefeated. Henning, the state champs last year, and then Hancock. Not any easy games there, so I think we just go game-by-game and try to get the victory every time.”
That’s the mindset Holsten wants this young Ashby team to have. The Arrows have impressed their head coach on the way to eight wins so far, and he’s ready to see how they handle a difficult stretch on the road next week.
“The only thing I’m confident in is that we’re going to compete every possession,” Holsten said. “That’s all we’re going to ask them to do. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and you move on. If they’ll compete, I have no complaints, and so far I have no complaints. We’re looking forward to the challenge of it.”
ASHBY 25 36 - 61
B-E 25 32 - 57
ASHBY SCORING - Hunter Norby - 5; Torin Olson - 11; Jacob Cook - 18; Jaden Norby - 21; Noah Johnson - 6
B-E SCORING - Marshall Riedel - 12; Tyler Bitzan - 7; Kobe Reiland - 3; Keagan Schiele - 12; Jesse Perleberg - 3; Tanner Bitzan - 10; Titus Fuller - 10