By Patrick Slack
The winter of Upsala basketball continues.
A week after the girls team clinched its first ever trip to state on the same floor, the unbeaten Cardinals boys weren’t going to be left behind, Friday.
Sparked by a dominating edge in the paint and a three-minute stretch of dynamic shooting from junior Christian Pekarek that broke the game open, Upsala ran past Barnum 76-56 in the Section 5A championship in Crosby, claiming its second trip to state in three years.
The game got off to a blistering start, with the two squads combining for 25 points just three minutes in, before the pace cooled and both teams settled in.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I was happy (with the start), since we weren’t defending them the way we had planned,” Upsala head coach Vern Capelle said. “But as far as establishing tempo, yes, I thought we got the game off at a tempo that was to our advantage.”
Upsala eased its lead up to 22-17 midway through the half, then withstood a five-minute scoring drought to take a 30-24 advantage into the break.
Barnum kept within striking distance in the early stages of the second half, keeping the gap within two possessions at 35-30 with 13 minutes to play.
However, the Bombers had no answer for Pekarek over the next three and a half minutes, as the Cardinals guard scored the team’s next 15 points on four three-point shots and a trio of free throws, breaking the game wide open at 50-37 with 9:19 to play, and Upsala never looked back, going on to win by 20.
“That was a huge factor in this game,” Capelle said. “That stretch opened the game up and built momentum for our team, which was definitely a factor in the outcome. I don’t know if this was the ‘turning point’ since we were ahead the majority of the time, but it definitely built momentum and we could see all the players start to pick up their intensity during this period. Our team has had a number of these runs throughout the season from many different contributors, and this has been a key factor to our success this season.”
Pekarek led Upsala offensively with 26 points, 21 of which came in the second half.
The Cardinals also controlled the game in the paint, crashing the glass for 40 rebounds and working their way to the free-throw line repeatedly, allowing them to pull away down the stretch.
Senior Avery Smieja led the charge inside with 14 points and 15 rebounds, while senior Garrett Wolf recorded 11 points and seven boards and junior Dylan Zimmerman collected seven points and six rebounds.
“Avery’s play was a huge factor in the determining the outcome,” Capelle said. “We knew that we would have a size advantage with Avery, Dylan and Garrett and we went to a bigger lineup a number of times to try and capitalize on that advantage. This helped us quite a bit, especially in the first half when I had Christian out of the game.”
“This year will be memorable for everybody in our community,” he said. “To have both programs reach the state tournament in the same year is an amazing accomplishment for a school our size. I think it shows the commitment that our athletes and coaches have to being successful, and the commitment of our community to develop strong extra-curricular programs for our students.”
“I don’t think there was any extra motivation for our guys (after the girls advanced),” he said. “Even though we didn’t explicitly talk about going to state this season, every one of our players set that goal for the team last year after we lost in the sub-sections. Our guys have worked extremely hard in the offseason and have prepared to be exactly where we are.”
Upsala will enter the state tournament with an unblemished 30-0 record and as the second seed in Class A, squaring off against Battle Lake in the quarterfinals at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Thursday at 3 p.m.
“I think the only difference is that two years ago, we upset a very good Sebeka team in the sub-section finals to advance and win the section,” Capelle said. “We were definitely underdogs two years ago. This year, we weren’t the underdog. Expectations were much higher and I think that there was some added pressure because of this. Our players have handled the pressure extremely well and have risen to the occasion.”
“I definitely think that we are better prepared for what we will experience at state,” he said. “Two years ago, we were there for the first time ever, and that was awesome, but I think it may have affected the way we played a little bit. The majority of our players this season were on the team two years ago, and they have the experience of playing in the tournament. I think this will help us go into the tournament better prepared to advance.”
Upsala 76, Barnum 56
Upsala 30 46 – 76
Barnum 24 32 – 56
Upsala—Christian Pekarek, 26; Avery Smieja, 14; Garrett Wolf, 11; Matt Abeler, 8; Dylan Zimmerman, 7; Eric Frieler, 6; Andy Nelson, 3; Kyle Soltis, 1. Rebounds: Smieja, 15; Wolf, 7; Zimmerman, 6; Pekarek, 6. Assists: Abeler, 3; Pekarek, 3; Wolf, 3.