Boys basketball: West Central Area defies the doubters by capping off a 20-win regular season on Tuesday
The Knights were asking almost everybody on this roster to step into expanded or entirely new spots on varsity this season. They put together a 20-4 record after beating Battle Lake as WCA now looks ahead to the Section 3AA playoffs.
BARRETT — From the outside looking in, it might have been easy to expect the West Central Area boys basketball team to have a rebuilding season this winter.
The Knights lost five important seniors from a 15-5 team a year ago. Instead of accepting a rebuild, a new wave of varsity players will take West Central Area into the Section 3AA Tournament with a 20-4 record.
The Knights handled Battle Lake (10-14) in a 67-52 final on Tuesday night. They will take a six-game winning streak into the playoff opener on Saturday in a 7 p.m. home game against Eden Valley-Watkins (15-11).
“We lost a lot of people, and we knew we needed to build up our team,” WCA junior guard Jacob Strunk said after scoring a team-high 19 points. “We had a bunch of new guys. We have a bunch of people like (sophomore) Bryce Kjesbo, he played ‘C’ squad last year. He had never really gotten varsity minutes, and he’s been pretty big for us in these last few games.”
Battle Lake got a game-high 21 points from sophomore forward Jack Mekalson. He helped the Battlers grab a lead midway through the first half, but the Knights had 11 points each from Strunk and sophomore guard Cam Anderson by the break to lead 37-27.
The Knights won 42 of 50 games over the last two seasons behind players who were all willing passers. That’s the case with this group too as WCA consistently swung the ball around to get the best possible shot within its offense. It led to 10 made threes.
“We’re always looking for that extra pass,” Strunk said. “An extra pass from a good shot turns into a great shot, and that’s what we like to do around here.”
Sophomore guard Nas Dotts had four triples, and Cam Anderson added three. The Knights’ coaching staff has a drill they use in practice called the “one-more drill” where the emphasis is on making the extra pass to set up a great shot.
Head coach Kraig Hunter said he knew they had some good young shooters coming into the season, but a lot of those shots weren’t falling as guys adjusted to a higher level. That has started to change in recent weeks as this team has continued to build confidence.
One of the biggest plays of the night came off a hustle play from sophomore Mitch Dewey and then a nice skip pass from senior Ryder Staples late in the second half.
Strunk threw a high pass to Dewey in the right corner. Listed at 5-feet, 5-inches, Dewey jumped as high as he could to save the ball from going out of bounds as he tossed it back into play one-handed and behind his back.
Staples caught the ball near the right corner of the free-throw line. He found Strunk open in the left corner for a three that erupted the crowd and gave the Knights a 55-38 lead with a little more than seven minutes left.
“I saw I threw the ball over him,” Strunk said. “I was like, ‘Mitch, please get this.’ When he got it, it was just kind of like, ‘No way.’ I knew I had to make the three. It was a pretty big moment, got the crowd going.”
The Battlers responded with a 9-0 run, but the Knights never panicked. A three from Battle Lake made it 58-51 with almost two minutes left. Out of a timeout, WCA junior Cole Anderson put in a layup off a long pass. Cam Anderson then immediately created a steal and score to end any chances of the Battlers completing a comeback.
“We have a lot of them who are pretty heady kids like Cam,” Hunter said. “That’s one thing we saw in all three of these classes when they were in elementary. They’re all good anticipators, and that’s kind of why we run the style we do. We’re trying to use their ability to get deflections and anticipate what the offense is doing.”
Hunter lauds the way these players did not listen to what outside expectations might have been for them this season, and instead went out and got better and better each week.
The Knights went into Hancock (19-5) on Monday night and won a third straight Pheasant Conference championship by beating the Owls in a 58-41 game despite 20 points and 20 rebounds from Hancock big man Matt Thompson.
“I think I’m most proud of what a family they are,” Hunter said of his team. “They’re so close. Whatever we tell them, they go out and do. We weren’t picked to do very well this year. They just exceeded everyone’s expectations for a while, and then they just kept it going and going and going, and they’re still getting better. They listen every day in practice and keep improving.”
The Knights, who played out of Section 6A in recent years, now have the challenge of taking on a talented Section 3AA field in the postseason. Morris Area (23-2) is the top seed in WCA’s North half of the section, while Pipestone Area (20-5) is the No. 1 seed in the South.
The Knights, who will play many more Class AA teams starting next season when they join the West Central Conference, played six games against AA programs this winter. They are 1-1 against teams out of Section 3AA after beating Minnewaska (4-22) and losing to Morris.
“We’re expecting to do really well, but we know in AA that everyone is good,” Hunter said. “We used to be in AA back in the early 2000s. There’s really not a lot of bad teams, but we told the kids we don’t really change our game plan that much. There’s certain kids we try to focus on, but we’re still trying to push the pace, get ball pressure, tire teams out.”
Eden Valley-Watkins won three of its last four games of the regular season. The Eagles will pose a good challenge when they come to Barrett for the opening round on Saturday night, but the Knights are excited about a new opportunity after another standout regular season.
“We’re just going to take it one step at a time,” Strunk said. “There’s pretty good teams in there, but we’re up there with them too.”
WEST CENTRAL AREA 37 30 - 67
BATTLE LAKE 27 25 - 52
TOTALS - WCA - FG - 24-60; FT - 9-14; Turnovers - 12; Battle Lake - FG - 21-46; FT - 6-11; Turnovers - 17
WCA - Jacob Strunk - 19 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals; Cam Anderson - 15 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals; Nas Dotts - 12 points; Cole Anderson - 11 points; Ryder Staples - 6 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals; Bryce Kjesbo - 2 points; Tyler Biss - 2 points
BATTLE LAKE SCORING - Jack Mekalson - 21; Noah Mansker - 13; Owen Buehler - 7; Mason Deluge - 4; Drew Johnson - 3; Bricker Bladow - 2; Sam Jossart - 2