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The Four-Point Play: Keeping games in perspective

Hancock guard Noah Kannegiesser flips a loose ball to a teammate while battling between a pair of BBE defenders on Monday night. Curt Hogg / Tribune1 / 2
Willmar guard Noah Slagter dribbles away from a trap from the Hutchinson defense on Tuesday night. Curt Hogg / Tribune2 / 2

The Four-Point Play is a weekly look into four of the top storylines in area prep basketball.

In its short-lived history, the Four-Point Play has served as a lighthearted look at the game that brings so many communities together across the area, state and country. It's great to have a space that highlights just some of the many standout student-athletes in west central Minnesota, and does so through an enthusiastic look at basketball that hopefully makes the games more fun—as they ought to be.

I promise that we'll get to that point in this column, but, first I think it's important to look back at the events from last Friday in Benson. To do otherwise. would be remiss to jump on into a column about the top storylines in prep hoops.

As printed in Tuesday's Tribune, a former Benson High School student was charged with a single, felony count of terroristic threats for allegedly posting threats against the school and community via social media.

Those threats disrupted one of the greatest safe havens in small towns, basketball gyms, by forcing a game in progress to halt and the entire gymnasium full of spectators at the Benson Case IH Tournament to evacuate.

Some of the threats included in the Tribune's report are incredibly alarming. Alex Forsberg, 22, allegedly stated on Snapchat that he was coming back to Benson "with multiple people to shoot up the school." Also included: a threat to "murder every person in Benson before Christmas is even done."

Thankfully, the Benson police department acted quickly and worked with other law enforcement to locate Forsberg and take him into custody in Grant County, about an hour outside of Benson.

Thankfully, the administration at Benson High handled the situation calmly and effectively. And thankfully, the tournament went on without a hitch a day later on Saturday.

But the events—and those direct quotes from Forsberg—still had a jarring effect on the community and the teams competing in the tournament. It certainly hit home for the faculty threatened, the teams and fans in the gym and all 3,000 people in Benson.

MACCRAY head coach Tyler Anderson put it in perhaps the truest terms, saying, "You hear about it on the news in cities all over the country, but it's crazy when you see it up close. It hits close to home when you're part of it."

It served as an all-too-real reminder that the games, across all levels, that we often take incredibly seriously, are, after all, just games. What's most important isn't the outcome, but a community coming together, providing a positive learning environment and—as we were reminded on Friday—getting home to family safely.

A dose of perfection

The 1972 Miami Dolphins. 1976 Indiana Hoosiers basketball. 2001 Miami Hurricanes football. Too many Connecticut Huskies women's basketball teams to count. 2004 Arsenal. 2015 Kentucky men's basketb—oh wait, that's right, they lost to Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Wisconsin in a glorious Final Four game to finish the year 38-1.

Those are some of the most prominent examples of teams to achieve perfection with an undefeated season. It's an achievement that no matter the level, lifts a team and its members to a status of legend and immortality.

There is something inherently captivating about a team that has not faltered.

While December is still too early to talk about potential undefeated seasons for prep hoops teams, it's not too early to acknowledge the teams that have played at a perfect level thus far.

Out of the 40 area teams, four still remain undefeated entering play on Tuesday.

I asked each of their head coaches one simple question: What do you like most about your team?

Willmar

Inside the Big Red Gym, they're partying like it's 2009. Hopefully said party includes Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A." A man can only hope.

For the first time since the 2009-10 season, both the Cardinals girls basketball teams are undefeated this far into the season at a combined 11-0.

Watching head coach Dustin Carlson's girls team, what you see is a completely balanced team effort. On the stat sheet, you see the exact same thing.

"My favorite thing? That would probably have to be our depth and being able to have different scorers every night," Carlson said. "Everybody steps up and chips in and that's been one of our strengths and also something that makes us a little better."

Willmar's top three scorers are separated by mere decimal points on a per-game basis. Hannah Johnson and Cayle Hovland are tied at 10.8 points per game to lead the way, while Madi Linbo is just behind at 10.7 ppg for the 6-0 Cardinals.

Johnson and Hovland are returning starters and 2016-17 All-Area nominees for the Cardinals, so perhaps it is the sophomore Linbo whose offensive ascension has proven to be the biggest addition.

"Madi's a fearless, gifted athlete," Carlson said. "She just knows exactly what she's good at and she's been sticking to that. She's impressive at taking it to the basket and can also knock down that open three. She's just a fun kid to be around."

The early-season accolades are piling up for Willmar, which is up to No. 4 in both the latest Follow the Rock poll and QRF rankings. That level of recognition brings with it an opponent's best effort every night and, already, Willmar has pulled off impressive wins over Sartell-St. Stephen, Fergus Falls and St. Cloud Apollo.

"That's a sign of respect when they're bringing their A-game each night, but we've just got to stay in the moment," Carlson said.

While seeing an uptick in shooting percentage and total scoring this year, a recent string of higher-than-desired point totals from the opponent has the Cardinals looking to reassert themselves as a dominant defensive force. Last season, Willmar allowed 46 points per game on average; that number has gone up a tick to 51.1 so far this year.

"The defense has slipped a little bit recently," Carlson said. "The first couple games, we were at about 30 points against a game or so and now it's 60 a game or so the last few. So we've put in a couple new things in practice and are just revisiting our defensive keys."

On the boys side, guard Noah Slagter is up to his usual Noah Slagter things, but head coach Matt Williams says the difference has come from both players stepping into bigger roles and an impactful change in style of play.

Slagter is averaging 20 points and 8.8 rebounds per game through five games and has received plenty of help. Drey Dirksen (11.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and Ty Roelofs (10 ppg) have been the two biggest contributors offensively, but Willmar as a whole has been a gauntlet to go up against with a frenetic tempo and full-court pressure on defense.

"I like our depth the most," Williams said. "You can just tell that we're absolutely wearing teams down by playing nine guys and pressuring them the entire game. We can noticeably see that we're outscoring teams in our second half, grabbing 50 percent of our offensive misses for offensive rebounds, things like that."

The Cardinals are certainly in for a tough test this week, though, if they want to remain perfect. On Tuesday night, the team travels to face reigning Central Lake Conference champion St. Cloud Tech before hosting St. Cloud Apollo on Thursday.

"We'll be tested this week," Williams said. "I want to see that the guys aren't intimidated. They know that the stuff we've been doing against some other teams, that's our identity even against teams that are big and identical. Our defense can still create offense and cause turnovers. We can still get out and use our athleticism."

Hancock

There are teams that like to get out and run. Then there is Hancock.

Led by senior guard and human scoring machine Noah Kannegiesser, the Owls are third in Class A and 10th in the entire state with 83.8 points per game en route to a 4-0 start.

Hancock coach Cory Bedel acknowledged Monday that his team's shooting, which is currently clicking on all cylinders, may undergo some cold spells. But he's still encouraged by what he's seen from the players that make up Kannegiesser's supporting cast.

"I would say the biggest thing we've had going for us is having a lot of shooters, and that takes a lot of pressure off of Noah," Bedel said. "Last year, teams were really able to pressure him and they're doing it again by whatever means. We're just able to have guys that can shoot it and run the floor very well, which has just been a big help."

Of course, the top storyline with the Owls is Kannegiesser, who is averaging 40 points per game through the team's four contests. The two-time Tribune All-Area first-teamer is on pace to set the boys' all-time area scoring record and is getting serious looks from over a handful of Division II school.

Perhaps nobody has been more helpful at taking the pressure off of Kannegiesser as Bennett Nienhaus, who has shot the lights out of every gym he's stepped in so far.

Nienhaus has already made 17 3-pointers and is averaging 17.5 points per game. As a team, the Owls have made 39 triples on the year—or 9.8 per game.

"We've tweaked our offense a little bit," Bedel said. "Last year, we ran more post plays, but now we're more of a four-out style so that when they double Noah we have shooters to beat them. So far, the shooters in the corner have been hitting their threes. It's working out well—so far, at least."

Minnewaska

Minnewaska's blend of experience playing together across a variety of sports has been a big factor in its 5-0 start, head coach Phil Johnsrud said.

With plenty of time together, whether on the football field, basketball court, weight room or anywhere else, the Lakers are hitting on all cylinders in the early going of the season.

"I think the continuity the kids have formed is a big thing," Johnsrud said. "We absolutely want three-sport athletes and we encourage it. This year's group of seniors as a whole are one of the first groups that became dedicated to working together on the court and off in the weight room. That's a big plus."

Despite going 11-14 just one season ago, there was plenty of optimism entering the year, which has come to fruition. While the Lakers lost All-Area performer Jake Peters, guard Jackson Johnsrud was more than ready to step into a primary role for his senior season. And he's gotten plenty of help along the way.

Johnsrud leads the way with 16.8 points per game. A back injury suffered in a win over Morris/Chokio-Alberta caused him to miss a game along the way, but fellow seniors Garrett Jensen (12.6 ppg) and Matthew Gruber (10.6 ppg) stepped up as they have all year.

"Our experience and our willingness to play together has been big," Johnsrud said. "That's not always the case. We have a few kids that are big contributors scoring, but they're all willing to share the ball and go with what the bigger plans are as a team. That's a blessing as a head coach."

With solid role players in Jack Blevins, Shaun Carsten, Ryan Christianson, Jaeger Jergenson and others, the Lakers also boast some depth.

"That's a huge asset to have," Johnsrud said. "We have a lot of really good basketball teams in our area, so the margin for error in games is really minimal. We've been trying to get deeper from game-to-game."

Minnewaska has started 5-0 in recent memory, but that sixth game has been a latte-trouble for the good folks around Starbuck. I'm so sorry for the pun. (I'm not sorry for the pun). In both 2010 and 2015, the Lakers suffered their first loss of the season in game number six to cool off from hot starts.

The most recent of those losses came against Sauk Centre. Where do the Lakers play on Tuesday?

Sauk Centre.

Curt Hogg

Curt Hogg is a sports reporter at the West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minnesota. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016. 

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