The West Central Area boys basketball team lost the majority of its lineup from a 15-5 team a year ago, but this year’s version of the Knights still shares this program’s identity on defense.

West Central Area held opponents to just 43.8 points per game last winter. That number has dropped to 42.7 this season, and it has the Knights off to a 9-2 start after they beat Brandon-Evansville 58-43 on Tuesday night.

“We’re always a program that stresses defense, but we knew coming into this year that we lost pretty much all of our studs from the last couple years except for (senior) Ryder (Staples),” WCA head coach Kraig Hunter said. “We knew we were young and kind of deep. We’re not that good on offense yet because we’re inexperienced. We just said to create offense, this is going to be our identity. We’re going to press, try to get deflections and work our butts off. This team works as hard as anybody.”

West Central Area sophomore guard Nas Dotts dives to try to knock the ball away from Brandon-Evansville's Riley Perleberg on Jan. 11, 2022. 
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
West Central Area sophomore guard Nas Dotts dives to try to knock the ball away from Brandon-Evansville's Riley Perleberg on Jan. 11, 2022. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

The defensive number that stood out the most on Tuesday was the fact that the Knights held the Chargers (5-5) without a field goal from inside the arch in the first half. West Central Area led 23-15 at halftime with all of Brandon-Evansville's points coming on threes.

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“That’s been a problem for us all year, whether it is playing against a zone defense or a man defense,” B-E head coach Trent Hintermeister said. “We have some guys who have worked hard at being good shooters and they fall in love with it a little bit too much. That’s also on me for not running sets that are going to get guys better looks in the paint. Ultimately, it all comes down to coaching and me not getting our guys in good enough positions to be successful.”

The Chargers hit nine triples, including four from junior guard Dezmond White on his way to 18 points. That was not enough to overcome just five made 2-point field goals as the Knights stretched their lead out to nearly 20 points in the second half.

Brandon-Evansville does not have a lot of size to work with. The Chargers’ tallest player is actually one of their lead ball-handlers in 6-foot, 3-inch senior guard Tyler Bitzan, but Hintermeister was not using that lack of size as an excuse.

Brandon-Evansville senior guard Tyler Bitzan blocks the shot of West Central Area's Ryder Staples on Jan. 11, 2022. 
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
Brandon-Evansville senior guard Tyler Bitzan blocks the shot of West Central Area's Ryder Staples on Jan. 11, 2022. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

“I think you can make anybody be able to do different things in the game of basketball,” Hintermeister said. “We just have to rep it and get better at it. We need to be able to play inside out and not outside in. When you only make five from inside the paint, you better be knocking them down from the outside.”

The Chargers feature a lineup with some good experience in guys like Bitzan, senior Titus Fuller, and juniors in White and Brady Perleberg. Around them is a nucleus of sophomores and freshmen in Micah Fuller, Riley Perleberg and Lucas Fuller who are getting more varsity minutes this year.

“We have a varsity-level basketball team, varsity-level kids who are ready to play varsity basketball,” Hintermeister said. “We just got beat tonight.”

For the Knights, much of this is all new for these players on varsity. Staples is their lone senior who gets big minutes. He had a game-high 22 points. Junior guard Cole Anderson added 11 points in the win. He got a lot of minutes a year ago, and players around Anderson and Staples are being asked to step into much bigger roles for WCA.

West Central Area senior forward Ryder Staples puts up a three during the Knights' win over Brandon-Evansville on Jan. 11, 2022. 
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
West Central Area senior forward Ryder Staples puts up a three during the Knights' win over Brandon-Evansville on Jan. 11, 2022. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

“All of our kids have stepped up,” Hunter said. “After Ryder, the rest are really balanced. They’ve done a good job of finding who’s hot or who’s open or who has mismatches inside. Every night we have different scorers.”

The Knights start two sophomores in Cam Anderson and Nas Dotts. Mitch Dewey and Bryce Kjesbo are also two of the first players off the bench as sophomores.

“Those guys are small size wise, but they’re skilled,” Hunter said. “I think they’re going to just keep getting better and better. They have the basketball smarts and they have the skills. It’s just a matter of the speed of the game, and once they keep growing and getting bigger.”

Dewey, listed at 5-feet, 5-inches, hit two threes in the second half, and junior guard Jacob Strunk also had a nice game with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 5 steals, 4 assists and 8 deflections.

Hunter came into the season not really knowing what to expect in terms of wins and losses. He was concerned about this group’s lack of size and experience, but he challenged them to play hard and use their energy on defense to lead the way.

Brandon-Evansville sophomore Lucas Fuller looks for his teammate, Tyler Bitzan, on the block during the Chargers' game at West Central Area on Jan. 11, 2022. 
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
Brandon-Evansville sophomore Lucas Fuller looks for his teammate, Tyler Bitzan, on the block during the Chargers' game at West Central Area on Jan. 11, 2022. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

“I thought we had the potential to maybe surprise some teams, but I never imagined the start that we’ve had,” Hunter said of the nine wins in the first 11 games. “These kids have embraced the challenge we set before them for the impact they could have on the program.”

The Knights want to keep building as they prepare themselves for the Section 3AA Tournament after moving up from the Class A field this winter. WCA is 4-1 against Class AA competition so far this season. That gives Hunter confidence that this group will be able to hold its own at a higher class level come playoff time.

“That’s the goal is to play well at the end of the year,” Hunter said. “Every game we tell them that. Even at halftime if we’re up big, we tell them we have to do things we’re going to do in March, just keep working on things every game.”

WCA 58, BRANDON-EVANSVILLE 43

WCA - Ryder Staples - 22 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks; Cole Anderson - 11 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists; Jacob Strunk - 12 points, 7 rebounds, 5 steals, 4 assists, 8 deflections; Mitch Dewey - 6 points, 2 steals, 1 steal; Cam Anderson - 2 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal; Nas Dotts - 3 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 assist, 6 deflections; Bryce Kjesbo - 2 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists; Damon Sanstead - 1 steal

B-E SCORING - Micah Fuller - 4; Riley Perleberg - 6; Brady Perleberg - 2; Titus Fuller - 8; Dezmond White - 18; Lucas Fuller - 5