By PATRICK SLACK
When the boys basketball season began, Upsala head coach Vern Capelle knew he had a special group.
All but one player was returning from last year’s sub-section finalist, with speed and athleticism up and down the lineup.
With a group capable of accomplishing big things, Capelle looked for a phrase to help galvanize the group, coming up with a quote from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi on “relentlessy chasing perfection.”
It wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but almost was, as Upsala won its first 31 games in reaching the state semifinals for the first time in school history, finishing with a 31-2 record.
“I felt that this quote was very appropriate for this team and this season, not because I believed that we would go undefeated, but because this is how we would prepare ourselves every day,” Capelle said. “Our players embraced this quote and we referred to this frequently together throughout the season.”
The full Lombardi quote reads: “Gentleman, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well that we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.”
Pekarek named to all-tourney team
Upsala possessed a senior-dominant roster this winter, with six of the eight members of the regular rotation all seniors.
But junior Christian Pekarek was a leading force setting up the offense, coming away with one final milestone by earning a spot on the Class A all-tournament team.
Pekarek opened the tournament with a 25-point performance to help lead the Cardinals past Battle Lake in the quarterfinals, then scored 22 more in the semifinals against Southwest Minnesota Christian before being held to only two in the third-place game versus Rushford-Peterson.
Free-throw excellence no surprise
Upsala faced a steep hill to climb in order to get back in its semifinal game against eventual champion Southwest Minnesota Christian after falling behind 25-9.
Unable to find much offense from the field, the Cardinals worked their way to the free-throw line, hitting all 14 of their first-half attempts, including 10-of-10 during a 16-0 run that tied the score.
Count Capelle among those who were … not that impressed.
“Not as impressed as most,” he said. “I have seen our team shoot free throws very well, so I knew that we were capable of shooting well in a big game like this.
“A big part of our offensive philosophy is to get to the free-throw line and our players work very hard to become good shooters from the free-throw line,” he said.
A season to remember
With a laundry list of accomplishments on the court, including a Prairie Conference championship, 31 consecutive wins and a trio of games with triple-digit scoring, there will be no shortage of on-court memories from this season.
But when looking back on this season in future years, Capelle believes thoughts will center just as much on the work put in off the court.
“The obvious answer is the state tournament finish and going to state undefeated,” he said. “I think in time though, the team and I will remember just how close we have become and the memories that we created on our journey together this season.”
“This group of seniors is exceptional both on and off the court,” he said. “They truly are teammates in every sense of the word. Their work ethic is outstanding, on the court and in the classroom. It will be very difficult to see them go, but also very exciting to see where their individual journeys will take them.”