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Prep Basketball: Marquee matchups in home stretch

There was a time when high school sports were played on a regular basis. Roads were driveable and, believe it or not, if you stuck your hand out in front of your face, you could actually see it.

Willmar's Mackenzie Jones fires a 3-pointer in the second half of Saturday's game against Big Lake at Willmar High School. Jake Schultz / Tribune
Willmar's Mackenzie Jones fires a 3-pointer in the second half of a Jan. 20 game against Big Lake at Willmar High School. Jake Schultz / Tribune

There was a time when high school sports were played on a regular basis. Roads were driveable and, believe it or not, if you stuck your hand out in front of your face, you could actually see it.

Those were simpler times.

Now, we've come to a time where each basketball game or wrestling match is just as likely to be canceled as it is to be played. That's a real shame, too, because this sportswriter really likes regularity but also because this season still has some big games that even Mother Nature herself would want to see.

So, pick up your calendar-folks still use those, right?-and grab a pencil so we can mark down some matchups for you to see before this regular season is finished.

Feb. 9 - Morris/Chokio-Alberta vs. Hancock at UMM

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The only weather to worry about with this game are the raining 3s! OK, sorry, I'll see myself out now.

The Tigers are meeting up with their down-the-road rivals from Hancock for the second-straight year at the Cougar Sports Center on the campus of the University of Minnesota-Morris. Morris/CA won last year's installment 65-56, handing Hancock one of their three losses of the season. The Tigers returned a lot from last year's team and Hancock lost one of the program's best-ever players in Noah Kannegiesser, so all things point the way of Morris/CA. Right?

Yes and no. If we're just going pure #analytics, Hancock holds the advantage in record with a 13-3 mark, points per game (65.6, as opposed to 61.9 for the Tigers) and points against (55.5 against 56.1). The Owls also sit with a superior QRF ranking, according to Minnesota-Scores.net with a spot at No. 17, as opposed to No. 53 for Morris/CA.

There's an important caveat here, though: any Morris/CA fan is probably saying repeatedly as they read these paragraphs that the Tigers play a class up, in Class AA, while Hancock is at Class A.

That doesn't always make a huge difference. For example, BOLD is a Class A team and is probably the toughest team the Tigers have played all year. Nevertheless, it explains the disparity in rankings.

Kannegiesser is gone for the Owls but Bennett Nienhaus has stepped up to carry the load, delivering long range missiles on a nightly basis. A crew of Reeses (Cole and Connor) and Rohloffs (Peyton and Preston) complement his game well, providing some good team action. The potential downfall for the Owls on Saturday, though, will be the height and athleticism Morris/CA will bring to the table.

Freshman center Jackson Loge is coming into his own this year and at 6-foot-6 he's practically unguardable. Camden Arndt (6-foot-4) and Jaret Johnson (also 6-foot-4) each bring strong outside shooting and a good inside game to the table as well. Their height alone puts a ton of pressure on senior center Tanner Pahl (6-foot-5), and smaller Owl defenders.

Feb. 12 - Sauk Centre at BOLD

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The BOLD boys and girls basketball teams really are about to go an entire season without losing a combined 10 games, aren't they?

The boys have lost just one game and the girls have lost four, but it's their second loss that is important for us right now. Go all the way back to Dec. 4, when the polar vortex was only a nightmare and 49 states were only upset about one Boston championship. It was the second game of the season for the BOLD Warriors and, after a 63-54 loss to Sauk Centre, they dropped to 0-2.

Since that day, though, BOLD is 15-2, only losing to Prior Lake, a Class AAAA state tournament team a year ago, and to Minnewaska in the first game of the new year. Many of those wins have come without star forward Makenna Steffel, too. The Steffel Tower has missed a number of games due to injury but that has allowed juniors Brenna Weis, Ashley Trongard and Makayla Snow to step up.

Sauk Center, meanwhile, has gone on a 16-1 run and are 17-2 overall. Their only loss since that Dec. 4 meeting was a 60-53 decision to Alexandria, then the top-ranked Class AAA team in the state.

If the Warriors have any chance of snagging part of the West Central Conference title, they'll need to top the Mainstreeters and hope for a bit of luck, too. BOLD currently has a 9-2 WCC record while Sauk Centre is 10-0 in conference play.

Feb. 12 - Willmar at Fergus Falls

The Willmar girls are probably going back to state. You probably knew that. But did you know they're about to start a streak of conference championships, too?

The Cardinals are poised for their third-straight trip to the big dance and after a pair of wins against top-ranked Alexandria, Willmar has all but sealed up a second-straight Central Lakes Conference title. Willmar leads the pack at 10-0 in the conference and their only real threat at this point are the Otters of Fergus Falls, who sit in second at 9-2.

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The Otters have been outstanding this year, posting a 17-3 record with losses to Albany, Alexandria and Willmar. Since that Jan. 8 loss to Willmar, though, the Otters have reeled off nine-straight wins, including a 70-44 win against St Cloud Apollo on Tuesday.

That Jan. 8 game went in favor of Willmar to the tune of 65-50, but one major thing has happened since that day: Cardinal guard Hannah Johnson went down with a major injury.

Johnson's injury would destroy most teams but Willmar has forged on, largely thanks to some strong play by senior forward Carly Wedel and guards Madi Linbo, Abby Berskow, Katelyn Murphy and Mackenzie Jones. Amanda Mathiasen and Sadie Raitz have also stepped up nicely and therein lies the strength of Willmar's team: the Cardinals are one of the deepest teams in Class AAA and play suffocating defense that can hold opponents scoreless for minutes at a time.

The Cardinals are 10-0 since the calendar flipped and 6-0 without Johnson. The Feb. 12 game against Fergus Falls could decide the conference and precedes another big test for Willmar against conference and Section 5AAA opponent St. Cloud Apollo on Feb. 14.

Feb. 22 - New London-Spicer at Litchfield

The Litchfield boys are one of the best teams in the area yet somehow still get overlooked. Thei Dragons' 15-3 record is second only to BOLD in the Tribune coverage area among boys teams and are a must-watch team with the likes of Owen Boerema, Alex Gruenke and Joe Pennertz getting buckets and playing solid team defense. They make this list because of their talent but also because of their opponent: the New London-Spicer Wildcats, who defeated the Dragons in a 62-60 overtime thriller back on Jan. 24.

These are two teams with plenty of talent but a slightly different vibe at the moment. The Dragons, who are 9-1 in the new year, have been as steady as any coach could hope for, holding teams to 56 or fewer points in all but three games this year (all losses) while scoring an average of 63.7 points per game. NLS, meanwhile, is on a 1-3 slide with the lone win coming against Litchfield. The Wildcats have good wins against Willmar, Mound Westonka and Morris/CA, but also have dropped games to some good-but-not-great teams.

NLS has plenty of talent and both teams match up well with each other. In their one previous meeting, NLS battled back from a four-point deficit at halftime to force an overtime period, which they won 4-2. Brandon Adelman led all scorers with 20 points for the Wildcats, adding seven assists. Ander Arnold got in on the fun, too, knocking down four 3-pointers on his way to an 18-point game. On the other side of the ball, Gruenke led the Dragons with 17 points while Boerema added 12 points and seven rebounds and Tyson Michels scored 11 points with seven assists.

Boerema and Adelman are assuredly the stars for each team but they each play a different style of game. Boerema excels in the post while Adelman is one of the best shot creators in the state. Back in their original matchup, the win propeled NLS to the top spot in the West division of the Wright County Conference. Now, however, Litchfield holds an advantage with a 5-1 conference record, compared to 6-3 for NLS. Plenty can change before that Feb. 22 date but a shot at the title will almost assuredly be up for grabs.

Litchfield's Alex Gruenke checks for a defender on a breakaway in Thursday's game against New London-Spicer at New London-Spicer High School. Jake Schultz / Tribune
Litchfield's Alex Gruenke checks for a defender on a breakaway in a Jan. 24 game against New London-Spicer at New London-Spicer High School. Jake Schultz / Tribune

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