Tigers have high hopes at Class A state tournament

SPRINGFIELD — Coming into the Class A Boys’ State Basketball tournament as the No. 1 seed, the Springfield Tigers know that they still have quite a battle ahead of them.

Springfield enters state tournament play with a 27-2 record and winners of 18 straight games. Springfield will meet Spring Grove (23-4), the Section 1A champions, at 11 a.m. Thursday morning at Williams Arena in the Class A quarterfinals.

The teams will each feature a different style of play, with Springfield known for pushing the ball up the floor. Spring Grove, on the other hand, will not do that.

The Lions are led by their point guard Alex Folz, who averages 18.2 points per game. Ethan Matzke gives them a presence down lown, averaging 11.9 ppg. Caden Grinde averages 11 ppg and Noah Elton averages 9.7 ppg.

“They’re going to be patient, they’re going to reverse the ball two or three times and wait until they get a good one,” Springfield coach Lance Larson said, who is coaching in his fourth state tournament (2010, 2011 when they won the title, 2017, 2019). “Their point guard [Folz] is a good athlete, he’s strong and he’s a good shooter. They got a big kid, Matzke, and he’s pretty solid on the inside. The other guys do their role stuff and play good defense. I think if we can kind of limit Folz and Matzke, we should be okay.”

Springfield, meanwhile is led by perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the state in senior Isaac Fink and junior Decker Scheffler. Fink surpassed 3,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds earlier this year and he enters tournament play averaging 31.5 ppg and 11.8 rebounds per game. He also has a team high 156 assists (5.4 per game).

“He’s that coach guy on the floor and this is his fifth year as a starter,” Larson said. “We haven’t seen much that he hasn’t seen or done, whether it’s been with us or AAU teams across the country. That’s a huge asset. He’ll come into huddles and at halfime and suggest some things. I can’t imagine what it would be if he wasn’t there.”

Scheffler is averaging 22.4 ppg and 6.5 rpg. He is a member of the 1,000-point club and he’s distributing 5.1 assists per game. Larson said that Scheffler is the rare player that is versatile enough to be able to cause match-up problems both outside and inside.

“I think they’re probably the best 1-2 punch in Class A basketball,” Larson said. “Obviously Isaac draws a lot of attention and Decker is that enigma that can play outside, he can play inside. He’s strong enough to go against the big kids, he’s quick enough and shoots well enough to play on the outside. He’s a real tough match-up.

“I think he’s been told since the beginning of the year that he’s the key,” Larson said. “We knew what we were going to get out of Isaac and if he’s locked in, we could be very successful. When the lights turn on and it’s an important game, then he’s there.”

Junior Mitchell Buerkle is scoring 10.6 points per game, but his skill involves pushing the ball.

“The big thing for Mitchell is to run the floor, he’s the cross-country guy so he likes to run,” Larson said. “If we can get him up and down the floor and get him three or four easy ones, that’s huge. I think the other thing is, he’s one of our best defenders, whether we put him on-ball and try and stop somebody or let him be the help guy.”

Mitchell Leonard (7 ppg, 3.6 rpg) gives the Tigers some strength down low.

“He’s been playing better lately, getting in there and getting some rebounds and being able to put it back up,” Larson said. “We’ve been telling him that’s key for him to get three or four offensive rebounds and putbacks per game. I think the other key for him is he’s been really good on our screen and roll, he jumps the screen and roll really nice. If he can continue to do that, I think that helps us a lot. Offensively, we don’t run a lot of stuff through him but he’s a pretty good passer.”

The Tigers only two losses were to Minneota, which was the No. 1-ranked team at the time (78-75 on Dec. 29) and Minnesota Valley Lutheran, a 78-76 loss in overtime at MVL.

While the Tigers missed out on the state tournament due to a last-second shot last year against Mayer Lutheran in the Section 2A title game, they do have plenty of athletes from the state tournament football run this past fall.

“They’ve played in a lot of big-time stuff,” Larson said. “They just got out of playing the the state football tournament, Isaac and Decker played in the baseball championship (in 2016 when the Tigers won the Class A state title). They’re big-time guys, they like the bright lights, so we’ll be alright.”