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MACCRAY hoping to cool off Patriots

The majority of boys basketball coaches in Section 3A, including MACCRAY head coach Gary Nelson, thought Hills-Beaver Creek would be the team to beat in order to reach the state tournament. Hills-Beaver Creek is in that position now, but things at the beginning of the season things weren't looking as peachy for the Patriots.

The Patriots (23-6) will have another challenge on their hands today as they meet MACCRAY (25-3) in the 3A final at 5 p.m. at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. Hills-Beaver Creek had never reached the state tournament while MACCRAY hasn't made the trip to the Twin Cities since 1996.

"We have had quite of bit of adversity this year," said Patriots' coach Steve Wiertzema. "We lost one of our better players (senior guard Heath Van Wyhe) to a knee injury in mid-January and we have had others miss time with an injury or illness. Right now we are as healthy as we'll ever get."

MACCRAY senior Seth Hinrichs, a 6-foot-7 NCAA Division I signee, ignites an offense that averages 75 points a game. Hinrichs averages 22 points and 11 rebounds a game on a squad that has lost only once in the last two months.

"I don't think we can stop him," said Wiertzema. "We'll try to slow him down, but I don't think we have anyone that can shut him down."

Scoring is pretty even for MACCRAY after Hinrichs with junior guard Riley Aeikens and junior center Brady Boike both scoring on average in double figures. The Patriots don't have a go-to guy like Hinrichs, but their scoring is also balanced.

"They are probably the most athletic team in (southwestern Minnesota)," said Nelson. "They are very athletic and they could give us some fits. The have two guys inside and three shooters and that's a good combination."

Senior forward Travis Helgeson, senior guards Karic Wiertzema -- who missed time around Christmas after undergoing knee surgery -- and Cory Tilstra and junior center Seth Nuffer all average at least 10 ppg for Hills-Beaver Creek. Helgeson and Nuffer are both 6-4 and Wiertzema stands at 6-3.

"We're kind of a lot a like," said coach Wiertzema. "We don't have a dominate player like Hinrichs, but we both play hard and are athletic. It will be a challenge to meet their quickness and athletic ability, but it will be a challenge for them to meet are quickness and athletic ability as well."

The Patriots we hoping that their group of athletic players from last year's 25-4 squad would finally propel them past Red Rock Conference rivals Ellsworth and Southwest Minnesota Christian and into the state tournament. But the early injuries slowed down the Patriots as they lost all four regular-season meetings with Ellsworth and SMC. The Patriots avenged those losses in the semifinals and final of the sub-section tournament and are now one win away from finally reaching the state tournament.

"Everyone was back this year and a lot of people thought they were the best team back from last year," said Nelson. "But they lost some games at the beginning of the year. You get lost under the radar when you do that.

"The couple of games they beat some quality teams, teams that we thought we would have met (at this point). They got hot and we're hoping that they won't stay hot."

The Patriots might have to play their best game of the year to get past MACCRAY as the Wolverines have won 16 of their last 17 games. Two of MACCRAY's losses came against teams that are also playing in section championship games (Robbinsdale Cooper in 5AAAA and Redwood Valley in 3AA) and its other loss was to Montevideo, a team that was ranked in the top 10 in Class AA for the majority of the season.

"Getting to state is a goal of ours and last year we had this (same) opportunity," said Nelson, who had an undefeated team last year until it lost to Ellsworth in the 3A final. "We didn't make last year, and boy, was that devastating to the seniors and Seth. This (game) means a lot to him and he wants to be the guy that leads the team to state.

"This is the time to play well and I do believe we are playing our best ball."

Jesse Fuchs
I have been with the Tribune since the summer of 1998. I enjoy covering the high school aspect of the business and designing pages.
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