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Class AA boys basketball: Familiarity makes the Wildcats’ heart beat stronger

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The New London-Spicer and Annandale boys basketball teams will bring rare insight into what makes the other tick when they tip off in the Class AA Minnesota State Boys Basketball Tournament quarterfinals Wednesday at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

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State tournament opponents don’t often play each other prior to the tournament, which is what makes the experience unique: teams from different parts of the state, with different backgrounds and styles, converging for a three-day mash-up to decide the championship.

But in this case, the Wildcats and Cardinals play twice a year as members of the Wright County Conference. This year, Annandale (23-6), the Class AA tournament’s top seed, won both meetings with New London-Spicer (19-10) by an average of 7 points per game.

“We feel like all the pressure is on them,” said NLS head coach Chad Schmiesing, whose Wildcats downed Melrose 70-59 on Friday in the Section 6AA championship game at St. Cloud State University. Annandale rebounded from an early deficit to defeat Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted 67-51 in the 5AA title game Friday at SCSU.

“They’re the No. 1 seed and we kind of feel like we have nothing to lose,” Schmiesing said. “We feel like we can compete with them physically and it’s a matter of competing mentally for an entire game. It’s a matter of executing what we’re trying to do better than what they’re trying to do. We don’t think we’ll see a lot of unknowns in the game.”

It’s an interesting coincidence that, on the other side of the Class AA bracket, quarterfinals opponents St. Peter and Fairmont also come into the tournament after having played twice during the regular season. None of the other four teams in the Class AA field — St. Paul Academy, Caledonia, East Grand Forks and Esko — played any of the other Class AA entrants this season.

Fairmont (24-4) was an obvious Class AA No. 3 seed, cruising through four Section 3AA opponents by an average of 20 points per game. Fairmont’s upstart South Central Conference rival St. Peter, with its 14-14 record, barged into the Class AA bracket as the last team standing in Section 2AA. None of the section’s No. 1 or No. 2 seeds — four teams which averaged 19 wins — made it as far as subsection finals. Fairmont swept St. Peter during the regular season, winning by 14 and 11 points.

In NLS’ case, the strange alignment of two conference teams meeting in the state tournament came by dint of NLS being essentially kicked out of the West Central Conference several years ago.

NLS is the western-most team in a conference that is more outer-ring metro than west-central Minnesota. It is one of just four Class AA programs — Annandale also being one — in the 11-team conference comprised mostly of Class AAA schools.

Aside from the 32-mile trek to play Wright County Conference rival — and former West Central Conference foe — Litchfield, the Wildcats’ average game-day road trip is 70 miles, one way. Four of their trips are more than 80 miles.

But once the postseason begins, much of the Wright County Conference peels off to play in Sections 6AAA, 5AAA and 2AAA while NLS, Litchfield and Annandale hunker down closer to home and traditional rivals in 6AA and 5AA.

NLS’ and Annandale’s rough-and-tumble existence in the Wright County Conference begins to pay dividends at this point. Two WCC team — 27-2 Holy Family and 21-8 Orono — made the Class AAA state tournament field. Three WCC teams won 20 or more games this season and seven of the 11 WCC teams won 15 games or more.

“We know the Wright County Conference is tough — some of the best teams in the state are in that conference,” NLS senior guard Ryan Vraa said of the Wildcats, who were 5-9 in the WCC and 14-1 in non-conference games. “The regular season is really just building for the postseason. Our record really isn’t indicative of how we perform as a team and I think we know that. We took every game as a lesson. Whether it was a win or a loss, we took it as a way to get better.”

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