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Boys Basketball Feature: There are no easy games in the Camden Conference this season

Lac qui Parle Valley, Central Minnesota Christian and Renville County West are all undefeated, making the Camden-North unusually talented and strong for a league of Class A schools

021021.S.WCT.LQPV BBB Maverick Conn 2.JPG
Lac qui Parle Valley senior forward Maverick Conn leads the Eagles onto the floor prior to Monday's Camden Conference game against MACCRAY from Lac qui Parle Valley High School in Madison. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Nearly a month into the 2021 season, three area boys basketball teams entered Tuesday unbeaten.

Lac qui Parle Valley (8-0), Central Minnesota Christian (7-0) and Renville County West (6-0) have emerged as contenders nearing the midway point of the regular season, setting up a potential tug-of-war for the Camden Conference-North crown and playoff seeding in Section 3A-North.

Excitingly enough, the trio will square off against one another over a eight-day stretch.

The battles begin when the Bluejays take on the Jaguars at 7:30 p.m. Thursday from Renville.

“I haven’t had much chance to watch them play, but you are always watching what your competitors are doing every week. We definitely keep a tally on them,” RCW head coach Matt Huhnerkoch said of CMCS. “They have a great team and they were great last year. They did lose some to graduation, but they just seem to reload every year and this is no different.”

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RCW and CMCS will each travel to Madison next week to face LQPV, which is ranked sixth in Class A.

“We’ve been able to watch video and get information. We’ve been able to get a start on some of our scouting and that leads the coaches to prepare a little bit,” Eagles head coach Barry Besonen said. “Obviously, those two games come up the week after next, so we keep an eye on that, but we’re also trying to make sure we look at what we have right now in the moment.”

CMCS head coach Ted Taatjes added: “With RCW and LQPV both being undefeated, they’re both really good teams. They’re pretty deep. LQPV is really long and athletic with some fairly nice shooters. RCW has nice length, but they are so physically strong and are playing well as a team. Those two are going to be a tough test and we’re all beat up on each other, which will hopefully prepare us for playoff time.”

Eagles look strong

LQPV is the only team of the three that is in the top 20 in scoring (74.8 points per game — 13th in Class A) and points allowed (47.9 — 16th).

The Eagles are also sixth in point differential (26.9) and have won all of their games by double figures.

“We knew coming into the season that we had a nice group coming back,” Besonen said. “We had three kids that started back, plus we had a couple others that played a lot off the bench as sophomores. ... We knew that we had a good nucleus.”

Maverick Conn is the top name in that nucleus. The senior forward averages 23 points per game and is among the conference leaders in nearly every offensive and defensive statistical category. According to Besonen, the 6-foot-4 Conn has spent more time at guard this season, but he has contributed from all five positions on the floor.

Evan Hegland is the team’s second leading scorer (14.6). He has also taken on more responsibility on the glass, bumping his rebounding up to nearly eight a contest.

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Those two players were expected to lead LQPV, but Besonen has been impressed with the leap others have made from a year ago.

Photo Gallery: Canby Lancers at Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg

“Our seniors are a known commodity. They’re doing what we expected them to do, but I feel like our juniors have taken a step forward,” Besonen said. “We’re getting more offensive production out of Hunter Conn down on the block and Kaiden Allpress is off to a good start. Those two were kids that came off the bench last year and have really taken strides.“

Allpress and Hunter Conn each are averaging double figures in scoring.

Defense matters for CMCS

CMCS is second in the conference in points allowed (48.9). It’s just been seven games, but the defending Camden Conference champion is on pace to better its top-ranked defense from a season ago (52.7).

Integrating new players into the rotation, Taatjes has been somewhat pleasantly surprised how well the defense has come along early in the season. He’s been even more impressed with how his offense has performed. CMCS is averaging 71.4 points per game on 49% shooting from the field.

Photo Gallery: Minneota Vikings at CMCS Bluejays

“We’re a little farther ahead than I thought we would be at this time just being off for so long. Graduating over 60% of our scoring from last year, there were a lot of shoes to fill. I was concerned with how we were going to score the ball, who is going to step up.

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“We have really good chemistry right now and guys (who) are willing to make that extra pass and give up an OK shot for a great shot, that makes kids better shooters as well.”

Four Bluejays average in double figures. Junior guard Case Mulder (19.0) tops the list, followed by junior forward Ben Van Eps (15.4) and senior guard Blake Greenwaldt (13.7)

Meanwhile, sophomore forward Ethan Bulthuis has enjoyed a nice leap in his first full season on varsity. Last season, he was pulled up from junior varsity during the postseason to gain experience and practice with the team’s seasoned veterans. This year, he’s made good on an increased role and is putting up 11.9 points per game.

“He’s a kid who really bought into getting better this summer,” Taatjes said of Bulthuis. “He lives in town and when I drive by, I can see him shooting in his driveway.”

Winning the close ones

RCW has played the most nail-biters out of the bunch.

The Jaguars defeated Tracy-Milroy-Balaton 57-56 on Jan. 22 before beating Minneota 72-65 six days later. Most recently, they downed MACCRAY 75-72 last Friday. All of those victories came on the road.

“Those tight ball games, I like to see that this time of the year,” Huhnerkoch said. “It’s something we can get experience from because when the playoffs roll around, those games are going to be the situations and the atmosphere that we’re probably going to be in. And when those situations have arisen this year, I like the way that my guys have responded. They’ve been cool, calm and collected.”

020321.S.WCT.RCW BBB Jonah Nauman.JPG
Renville County West's Jonah Nauman attempts a contested shot during a Camden Conference game against Yellow Medicine East on Feb. 2 from Renville County West High School. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Huhnerkoch believes those wins were due in part to his team’s depth. Six of his players are seniors, led by all-conference forward Riley Ashburn. He is second in the league in scoring (23.7) and rebounds (10.7).

However, juniors Tyler Froland and Jonah Nauman along with sophomore Adam Schrupp have also seen time in the rotation and have helped push the tempo.

“Our strength right now has to be our team speed and athletic ability,” Huhnerkoch said. “We’re able to push the pace of the game up and I can already tell that’s making other teams uncomfortable. They are getting tired and subbing more. We’re able to make it a track meet and I don’t think many other teams are able to sustain that pace.”

Froland leads the group of newcomers in scoring at 15.7 points per game.

Wolverines lurk

LQPV, CMCS and RCW are clearly the top tier of the North division and are expected to make noise in Section 3A-North.

But the coaches understand that every team in the bottom tier of the division still is capable of beating them on a given night.

Photo Gallery: Dawson-Boyd Blackjacks at MACCRAY Wolverines

Despite a 3-5 record, MACCRAY is the best of the rest and features one of the conference’s most explosive players. Senior guard Brady Kienitz leads the league in scoring (25.0) and assists (5.6). With other players like that in the league, there’s no time to take anyone for granted.

021021.S.WCT.MACCRAY BBB Brady Kienitz.JPG
MACCRAY senior guard Brady Kienitz dribbles into the frontcourt during Monday's Camden Conference game from against Lac qui Parle Valley from Lac qui Parle Valley High School in Madison. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

“Every game in our north conference is something that you have to put all of your attention to,” Huhnerkoch said. “The last two, three or four years in this North Camden Conference have just been an absolute gauntlet of teams. It seems lately that we’ve been beating up on one another, so maybe our records aren’t always shiny and nice, but it’s always good basketball.”

Taatjes added: “You watch some of the scores and every game seems to be tight. There are no games where you can show up and play below-average and get a win. It makes everybody better.”

Camden Conference

League standings going into Tuesday night:
North Division
Team \u0009 Con. \u0009 Over.\u0009
CMCS\u0009\u00097-0\u00097-0
LQPV\u0009\u00097-0\u00098-0
RCW\u0009\u00096-0\u00096-0
MACCRAY\u0009\u00093-4\u00093-5
KMS\u0009\u00092-5\u00092-5
Dawson-Boyd\u0009\u00091-5\u00091-5
South Division
Team \u0009 \u0009 Con. \u0009 Over.\u0009
T-M-B\u0009\u00095-2\u00095-2
R-T-R\u0009\u00093-2\u00094-2
Lakeview\u0009\u00093-4\u00093-4
Minneota\u0009\u00092-5\u00092-5
Canby\u0009\u00091-6\u00091-6
YME\u0009\u00090-7\u00090-7

020221.S.WCT.CMCS BBB Ethan Bulthuis.JPG
Central Minnesota Christian sophomore guard Ethan Bulthuis lines up a 3-pointer during a Camden Conference game against Minneota on Feb. 4 from Central Minnesota Christian School in Prinsburg. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

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