By PATRICK SLACK
When senior Caleb Janson strolls through the hallways at Pierz High School, his peers look up to him.
When he steps on the basketball court, they have to look up even higher.
That’s because from the moment Janson leaps for the opening tip until the final seconds tick off the clock, he can be seen leaping and bounding from point to point, soaring high above defenders.
With that relentless aggression and passion for the ball that refuses to allow him to let up on a single play, it was only a matter of time until the Pioneers’ standout forward transformed from being one of the best players in the area into one of the premier dual threats in the state.
When Janson broke into the starting varsity lineup as a sophomore, he was already one of the top rebounders in the area, averaging 7.3 per game.
As a junior, he doubled that output to lead all of Class AA with 14.7 per game.
“Every time a shot goes up, one thing I tell myself is that no matter what, I’m going to crash as hard as I can,” Janson said. “I feel like I can outwork the people that are guarding me. I don’t want to be outworked. I want to be the hardest worker out there.”
“He has an unbelievable work ethic,” head coach Danny Saehr said. “He’s a leaper. He can go from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ so fast. He’s always about a head above everyone else. When a shot goes up he is constantly working for position, whether it’s a layup or a three-point shot.”
“Every one of the coaches expressed how unbelievable he is with his tenacity on the boards,” he said.
Never one to settle for the status quo, even if it means being the best in the state, Janson aimed to be even better this season.
In the process, his scoring took off, and defenders not only had to worry about him wearing them down on one end of the court, but both.
One of the key areas Saehr identified was finishing games even better than in prior years, because the Pioneers planned to push the tempo early and often.
That allowed Janson to log even heavier minutes and helped him lead Pierz to a 21-win season, a second-place finish in the Central Minnesota Conference and a spot in the sub-section finals.
“A lot had to do with how our offense was run this year,” Janson said. “Our coaches did a really good job of getting me into the offense, stressing ball movement and getting me involved.”
Another key was taking one of Janson’s defensive specialties, crashing the glass, and turning it into an even more potent offensive weapon.
“I feel like offensive rebounding is purely effort,” Janson said. “Defensive rebounding is effort as well, but also positioning, boxing out, outworking the guy to the hoop.”
“He scored about a third to half of his points off of offensive rebounds,” Saehr said. “That’s a coach’s nightmare. You work so hard to get a stop and next thing you know, they get an easy rebound for two.”
That allowed him to be more efficient, shooting 52.4 percent from the field, while creating more room for teammates to operate from the perimeter when he encountered double teams.
When opponents brought multiple defenders into the paint, Janson started knocking down long-range shots to round out his offensive arsenal.
“That’s when he became a big-time threat,” Saehr said.
No game exemplified it better than when Pierz met up with Rockford Area at St. Cloud State, Jan. 17, a fitting collegiate setting for a player that looked like he belonged at a higher level.
After Janson controlled the paint in the first half, including a two-handed slam dunk, the Rockets backed off of him in the second.
Janson then proceeded to knock down five threes in a monster 36-point, 22-rebound performance, prompting the Rockford coach to tell Saehr after the game, “You can’t defend that.”
“Caleb puts an unbelievable amount of work in,” Saehr said. “This year he really shot the three ball well, especially in conference play, and he finished so much better. Some games he would have only 10 to 12 shot attempts and score 20 points.”
He ended up reaching double figures in scoring in all but two games, and had at least 11 rebounds in every outing but three.
His season average of seven rebounds from two years ago became his lowest output as a senior, and that came in a blowout win over Albany, Feb. 14.
For all of his offensive success, though, defense is where Janson made his biggest contributions, Saehr said.
“Caleb always guarded the other team’s top player, whether they were a point guard, power forward or a center,” Saehr said. “That kind of gets lost, but his defensive game is extremely impressive. He matched up with two or three all-state players and did very well against them.”
Entering the postseason, Caleb had already achieved what no other Pioneers player ever had, reaching 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, breaking Shane Poepping’s 20-year-old rebounding record.
Pierz faced a difficult road, coming in as the third seed in the 6AA North Sub-Section, but a rigorous schedule that featured three state tournament teams, including an eventual champion and runner-up, prepared the squad.
“It’s a very long season,” Janson said. “It’s a grind, especially when you get those midseason, late season losses. When a game doesn’t really turn out like you want, you have to just move on and keep working hard, keep your focus.”
“It was a great experience facing those teams,” he said. “Even though we didn’t win, we got a lot better than we would have. It really taught us a lot about our team, what we needed to do better, who we were.”
Pierz opened postseason action by easily disposing of Staples-Motley 77-37, with Janson picking up 15 points and 12 rebounds, setting up a showdown with second-seeded Melrose Area.
To say the two teams were evenly matched would be an understatement.
After Pierz took an early 13-6 lead, neither team led by more than five until the final score, while the lead changed hands 20 times.
When neither team could gain the upperhand in regulation, the Pioneers seized control in overtime, with Janson laying in the final basket to seal it.
“Especially being a senior, it was do or die, constantly playing with your back against the wall,” Janson said. “We had a lot of seniors, everybody knew that. But our underclassmen stepped up and filled some big roles. That game wouldn’t have been won without them stepping up.”
“A lot of the kids looked for him to make plays,” Saehr said. “At the end of the year, he maybe wasn’t getting those 15, 16 rebounds every game because other guys started to feed off of him. Everyone was keying on Caleb so much it freed everyone else up. He’s going to be extremely tough to replace.”
“It definitely put me at ease with his experience and his ability to not only defend but rebound and score,” he said. “I knew when things were going tough, he was going to be willing to step up and make a play.”
The Pioneers fell to Long Prairie-Grey Eagle in the sub-section final after the Thunder rallied late. For his part, the ever-consistent Janson turned in one final double-double, his 24th in 29 games.
“The biggest thing for me is kids have seen his work ethic, what he does in the weight room, his demeanor, his leadership,” Saehr said. “He’s a phenomenal all-around kid. You coach to coach kids like that.”
“Caleb is going to go down as one of the top players in school history,” Saehr said. “We kind of got spoiled watching him for four years. As good of a player as he is, he’s an even better person. To me that’s the most important thing.”
MC Record’s Player of the Year, game-by-game
Wadena-DC: 22 points, 21 rebounds
Little Falls: 10 points, 15 rebounds
Pequot Lakes: 2 points, 13 rebounds
Paynesville: 29 points, 19 rebounds
Mora: 13 points, 14 rebounds
Concordia: 24 points, 13 rebounds
Litchfield: 17 points, 14 rebounds
Sauk Rapids-Rice: 8 points, 11 rebounds
Holdingford: 18 points, 15 rebounds
Howard Lake-WW: 18 points, 19 rebounds
Foley: 13 points, 14 rebounds
Maple Lake: 19 points, 15 rebounds
Rockford: 36 points, 22 rebounds
Kimball: 21 points, 14 rebounds
Belgrade-BE: 20 points, 13 rebounds
Staples-Motley: 25 points, 18 rebounds
EV-Watkins: 28 points, 18 rebounds
Holdingford: 17 points, 16 rebounds
Howard Lake-WW: 21 points, 18 rebounds
Braham: 12 points, 11 rebounds
Albany: 16 points, 7 rebounds
Rockford: 19 points, 15 rebounds
Maple Lake: 14 points, 16 rebouds
Kimball: 17 points, 9 rebounds
EV-Watkins: 11 points, 23 rebounds
Belgrade-BE: 22 points, 15 rebounds
Sub-Section 6AA North
Staples-Motley: 15 points, 12 rebounds
Melrose: 22 points, 9 rebounds
Long Prairie-GE: 12 points, 12 rebounds
Points: 521 (18.0 per game)
Offensive rebounds: 164
Defensive rebounds: 267
Total rebounds: 431 (14.9)
Assists: 49 (1.7)
Steals: 32 (1.1)
Field goals: 212-for-410 (51.7 percent)
Three-pt. field goals: 30-for-88 (34.1 percent)
Free throws: 67-for-123 (54.5 percent)
Double-doubles: 24 in 29 games