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Column: MVL squads seeing success at midway point of Tomahawk season

Tomahawk Midseason Report

This Tomahawk Conference basketball season has had its share of fun games and upsets so far, with some new teams stepping up in front as conference leaders.

For both the boys’ and girls’ teams, it is still anyone’s conference midway through the regular season. While Minnesota Valley Lutheran has both its boys’ and girls’ teams looking like strong favorites to end the season as Tomahawk Conference champions, there are a cluster of other squads right on the heels of both MVL teams and plenty of basketball yet to be played.

Needless to say, things could get pretty interesting down the stretch in the Tomahawk Conference.

Here are the teams that lead the way in the conference at the midway point.

TOMAHAWK BOYS

As already stated earlier, the MVL boys, who are currently ranked ninth in Class AA, are a current favorite to win the conference.

Led by senior Dunwa Omot’s 23.6 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game and 3.7 steals per game, the Chargers have been on cruise control most of the season and have a 13-1 overall record and a 7-1 conference record. Seniors Mason Cox (14 ppg, 8.4 rpg ) and Jace Marotz (12.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg) have played a big part in MVL’s success this season also, along with Kyreis Harrison (9.1 ppg).

Another MVL player that may not get the credit he deserves due to his numbers is Izayah Harrison, who along with the other four MVL starters made the All-Tournament Team at the Kwik Trip Holiday Tournament hosted by Bethany Lutheran College a few weeks ago. MVL won the tournament by defeating St. Croix Lutheran and was the first team to have five players named to the All-Tournament Team.

Izayah Harrison has played a big role for MVL on the defensive side of the floor in the tournament and all season with his hard-nosed defense and quick feet.

MVL head coach Craig Morgan said that despite graduating the school’s second all-time leading scorer in Jake Kettner last year, the current team has continued to build off of the chemistry Kettner helped create.

“Jake was an important part of that team and was a good leader who helped build our good team chemistry,” Morgan said. “This team has continued what they learned last year and built on it moving forward together. They get it. Not one of them thinks he is better than the whole. They realize they can achieve more together and they need one another to be successful.”

Morgan added that despite the success his team has had so far, his team will have to remember to keep communicating in order to work together at a high level on both ends of the court.

While the Chargers are a favorite in the conference, that doesn’t mean they are the only favorite.

Joining MVL at the top of the conference is both New Ulm Cathedral (13-1, 7-1) and Springfield (12-1, 7-1), with Springfield defeating MVL in Springfield on Jan. 10 for the Chargers’ first loss of the season. Led by Mitchell Buerkle’s hot night of shooting, including six 3-pointers and 30 points, the physical and fast-paced Tigers put enough together late in the second half to pull away with a 94-85 win.

While the Tigers, who are ranked eighth in Class A, lost three-time All-Journal Basketball Player of the Year Isaac Fink to graduation in 2019, they still have proven to be a force in the conference, with senior Decker Scheffler leading the way with 27.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg and 2.1 blocks per game. Buerkle is averaging 18.8 ppg and shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc.

The Tigers’ only loss this season came early in the season at Cathedral, where the Greyhounds picked up a 71-68 comeback win.

In the Cathedral win, the Greyhounds erased a 10-point halftime deficit to come from behind and pick up the narrow victory. Jon Zinniel led the way for the Greyhounds in the game with 26 points and five blocks.

Zinniel leads the Class A No. 7-ranked Greyhounds this season with 18.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.4 spg and 2.1 bpg. Also for Cathedral, Chris Knowles is averaging 14.7 ppg and 7.4 rpg, while James Gillis is averaging 13.1 ppg.

Sophomore Sam Knowles has been a powerhouse on the glass this season also for the Greyhounds, averaging 10.8 rpg in addition to scoring 10.1 ppg.

Head coach Alan Woitas said after a conference home win over Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s this past Monday that winning the conference is just one small step.

“I think you approach each game as an opportunity to get better,” he said. “The conference [title] is great, it’s kind of a consolation prize, obviously you want to get better and be ready to go by the time the section tournament rolls around. And that’s our goal each game is to improve in the areas we need to improve and be ready to play at tournament time.”

Circling around back to MVL, Cathedral’s only loss this season came against the Chargers at MVL High School on Jan. 6. MVL was led by Omot, who had 27 points in the win, including 12 points off of free throws.

All three of these teams have a strong shot at winning the conference, but making it to the state tournament will be the ultimate goal. While the Tigers are coming off of two recent trips to state in Class A (2017, 2019), MVL and Cathedral are each looking to get back to state for the first time since the late 1990s.

Cathedral hasn’t made the trip to state since 1999, while MVL last made it to state in 1997.

The Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s (7-6, 5-3) boys have also taken a big step forward this season as a strong contender and a dark-horse team to watch come playoffs. While they have lost six games, they’ve looked improved from last season and have given many good teams trouble so far.

TOMAHAWK GIRLS

On the girls’ side of the conference, MVL leads the way with a 12-2 overall record and an 8-0 conference record.

Led by senior Emma Nelson (15.9 ppg, 11.7 rpg) and Abbie Riederer (21 ppg), the Chargers are the third highest-scoring team (68 ppg) in the conference behind BLHS (71 ppg) and St. Mary’s (70.4). The Chargers are also getting a strong and balanced effort from their other starters Abby Nelson (8.6 rpg, 7 ppg), Maddie Pearson (6.9 ppg) and Kaylee Hunter (6 ppg).

Last season, the Chargers finished 15-12 overall and 9-7 in the conference. MVL head coach Rollin Timm said that a big part of the improved play from last season mainly comes from hard work.

“We have a great group of girls who have been working hard in the offseason and throughout the season,” he said. “They are pushing each other to improve; and most importantly, they really get along well and support each other as each athlete carries out her own roles. They love the game of basketball and work and play together well — both on the court and off. In addition to that, we have been fortunate to come out on top of some very good battles against some great conference teams. This speaks well about their determination to never give up.”

Timm said that a few areas he still wants to see his team improve on during the second half of the season is limiting turnovers, improving defense and making more shots at the charity stripe.

Right behind MVL in the Tomahawk race is St. Mary’s (12-2, 7-2) and Springfield (11-3, 6-2). Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart (10-2, 5-2) also just picked up a big conference road win over St. Mary’s on Jan. 3 (83-79), putting its own claim in as the team to beat in the conference.

While St. Mary’s came up short against both MVL and BLHS earlier this season, both losses were by 4 points, with the loss to MVL being in double OT.

Knights head coach Bruce Woitas said that his squad is going to need to remain perfect in the second round of Tomahawk games in order to have a shot at winning at least a share of the conference title, but he’s still putting more emphasis on being ready for playoffs. He also said that staying out of foul trouble and staying consistent on defense will be key the rest of the season.

“The top teams in the conference are all very good teams, we just need to keep working to get better as a team,” he said. “In our two losses, we got ourselves into some foul trouble and that hurt us some at the end of those games. We have also been working hard on late-game situations so our team will be better prepared for games that may come down to a last shot. We also take pride in our defense play and in our two losses, we could have done a better job with our defense, so we have also been working hard on the defense side of the ball.”

Sophomore Madison Mathiowetz leads the Knights with 26.6 ppg and 9.6 rpg. Also leading the Knights so far is Sydney Windschitl (15.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and Reagan Severson (7.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg). Liz Schwint has also played a key role on the boards with 6.6 rpg.

Springfield is led by senior Sydney Hauger, who recently broke the school record in girls’ basketball for most career points. She leads the team with 21.8 ppg and 6.6 rpg, while Meriah Kirschstein is chipping in 9.5 ppg.

For BLHS, the Kottke sisters (Sara, Kaitlyn, Rachel and Kristi) have been a key part in the team’s success this season, led by senior Sara Kottke, who set the school record for career rebounds last season and was also an All-Journal First Team member.

In addition to those four solid teams, first-year head coach Sarah Hesse has helped her Sleepy Eye squad emerge as another team to watch out for as the season winds down. While senior Brittney Dittbenner has led the way in many victories this season for the Indians, the team has also gotten plenty of help from their youth in eighth-graders Kadence Hesse and Breaunna Mertz, along with sophomore Kaydince Thoms.

That blend of experience and youth has helped lift the Indians to a winning record of 12-3 overall and 6-3 in the conference.

No one player is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds a game this season for the Indians, but that’s not what coach Hesse thought would happen either. After the Indians’ first win of the season against Cleveland on Nov. 22, 2019, she told me that she didn’t expect the same player to lead every night and that she was looking for multiple different girls to step up as the season went on. So far, that appears to be what is happening and it’s led to a solid start.

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