Cardinals soar with high-flying guard
By PATRICK SLACK
Going into every season, Upsala’s goal is rather simple: become the best team it can be.
This year, that turned out to be especially good.
With dynamic junior point guard Christian Pekarek leading the way, the Cardinals set new standards for excellence for the program, starting the year with 31 consecutive wins and advancing further than any team before it.
Inspiration from defeat
After making it to state for the first time in 2011, Upsala had its sights set on a return trip last winter.
But standing in the way was Prairie Conference rival Browerville, which clipped the Cardinals for the third time of the season on its way to claiming the section crown.
“Losing to Browerville last year hurt really bad,” Pekarek said. “After going to state in 2011, it made us even more determined to get back to state in 2013 and work very hard in the offseason.”
Upsala used that motivation to fuel a quick start to the season as it rattled off its first six wins by double digits.
Following a hard-fought overtime win over Class AAA Little Falls in its holiday tournament final, it was apparent that few of the remaining teams on the Cardinals’ schedule would be able to challenge them.
Undefeated into playoffs
Upsala routinely had to stave off some first-half upset threats through the remainder of the regular season.
But those deficits always dissolved, often quickly, once the Cardinals established their pace.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, Upsala’s record stood at a perfect 26-0, with a Prairie Conference championship secured.
“Our goal for every year is to become the best team that we can be,” Pekarek said. “We knew we would be a good and experienced team that could make a state tournament run.”
“Being undefeated never crossed my mind,” Pekarek said. “We knew that if we played team basketball we could compete with anyone.”
Upsala opened the postseason by taking care of Bertha-Hewitt and Nevis, setting up a sub-section final rematch with Browerville, which only had two losses coming in.
But both of those were to the Cardinals, who levied a third consecutive defeat to exact revenge from a year before and move a win away from state.
One final hurdle
The last foe standing between Upsala and the state tournament was 10th-ranked Barnum.
On a frigid snowy night, both teams lit up the scoreboard early with sizzling shooting, keeping the game close throughout the first half.
It remained that way in the early stages of the second half, with Upsala sporting a 35-30 advantage.
Then, as he had several times throughout the year, Pekarek took over.
Four three-point shots and a trio of free-throws later, Pekarek had scored 15 consecutive points for the Cardinals, breaking the game open on their way to a 76-56 triumph and Section 5A title.
In for a battle
Unlike its first trip to state two years ago when it was pitted against the eventual champs in the quarterfinals, second-seeded Upsala entered as considerable favorites against first-round opponent Battle Lake at Williams Arena.
Whereas the Cardinals’ starting five featured four seniors and Pekarek, the Battlers sent out all underclassmen.
Upsala appeared to have things under control early on, building a 32-20 lead late in the first half.
But Battle Lake closed the gap to single digits at the half, then worked its way ahead at 49-46 with less than 11 minutes to play.
The Cardinals were not about to let the opposing upstarts send them home early, though, utilizing a 16-2 run to regain the lead en route to a 71-60 win, with Pekarek scoring 17 of his game-high 25 points in the second half.
The following day, Upsala made the transition to an even larger stage, playing at Target Center against perennial Class A power Southwest Minnesota Christian.
The Cardinals got off to a sluggish start, falling behind 25-9, before clamping down on a 16-0 spurt to even the score.
Upsala kept the game close the rest of the way, yet could never get the basket it needed to take the lead, falling 71-62 to the Eagles, who went on to win the state title the next day.
Pekarek scored 22 more in the game, helping land him a spot on the all-tournament team for the Cardinals, who finished in fourth place the following day to close the season with a 31-2 record.
“I feel like this year we had a better idea of what was going to happen when down at the state tournament,” Pekarek said. “Playing at the Target Center was the best time of my high school career and it was an amazing atmosphere there.”
“I’ll always remember playing in Williams Arena and the Target Center,” he said. “Those games are an experience I will never forget.”
A chameleon approach
Pekarek consistently led the Cardinals’ offensive attack with an average of 23 points per game, a total aided in part due to opposing defenses having to respect Upsala’s other array of scorers.
If opponents guarded him close, he would look to distribute the ball, passing out 3.2 assists per game.
“If we were in a situation where we needed to score on a possession, he would look to create that opportunity – either for himself or for a teammate,” Upsala head coach Vern Capelle said. “He is definitely a scoring point guard who likes to dominate the flow of the game.”
“He has an attacking mentality, which fits our system very well and gets him to the free-throw line, but also knows when to spot up on the perimeter to get open shots,” he said.
“It really depends on what the defense is giving us,” Pekarek said. “As a team, we are always looking for the open guy to take the shot. If it’s me I’ll shoot and if it’s not I’ll look to pass to an open teammate.”
Sometimes lost in the midst of Pekarek’s offense was his ability to create fast-break opportunities by picking the pockets of opposing guards, recording 104 steals during the year.
“Defense is a huge part of my game,” Pekarek said. “You have to play great defense if you want to win games and be successful.”
“I would say I am not a very flashy player,” Pekarek said. “I’m very scrappy and I do what I can to help my team win games.”
“He is very aggressive on defense as well,” Capelle said. “He has very quick hands and is constantly looking for an opportunity to create a turnover and turn that into points.”
“Christian has excellent court awareness and timing,” Capelle said. “He is able to see opportunities on the court and make very quick decisions which allows him opportunities to score.”
A fun-loving team
Upsala played an up-tempo style throughout the year, pushing the pace at every opportunity, with Pekarek leading the charge, helping the team develop a loose, fun-loving attitude.
Fun that was enhanced by vast success.
“Christian is certainly not shy off the court – he is very outgoing and friendly,” Capelle said. “We rarely see him without a smile on his face. This does rub off some, but this was one of the characteristics of this year’s team.”
“We had fun every day,” he said. “We could laugh with each other and enjoy being part of something very special. I believe Christian plays a big role in this and that we’ll have the same sort of atmosphere next season.”
No plans to rebuild
The atmosphere may be the same, but the level of success next year’s team will be capable of achieving is still up in the air.
While the Cardinals’ chances of duplicating this year’s undefeated regular season are unlikely, the team has no intention of taking a step back with a rebuilding year.
“As always, our goal will be to become the best team we can and I feel that our team next year is going to be able to make another state tournament run,” Pekarek said. “We lost six very valuable seniors that will be very hard to replace, but we have guys who will come in and fill roles.”
“I don’t think it will be a rebuilding year for us,” he said. “I believe we will have high expectations with a strong group of underclassmen filling in positions.”
“Every team is different, so I don’t think we can compare this year’s team to the team we’ll have next season,” Capelle said. “I think we have a great nucleus to build on with Christian, Dylan and Nathan. We have a very talented and dedicated sophomore class that will add some more size to our lineup.”
“The biggest question is who from this sophomore group will step up and fill the shoes of the seniors we graduate,” he said. “If we get the right pieces in place and stay healthy, we will be very competitive in the conference and in the section next season.”
Pekarek, who also was selected the Prairie Conference’s Most Valuable Player, will be at the forefront, not just on the court but off of it.
“We had a number of leaders on our team this year with the outstanding seniors that we will graduate this year, but I wouldn’t say that Christian took a back seat at all,” Capelle said. “His leadership was more on the court than off, but he was definitely one of our leaders.”
“I expect that Christian will again be one of our primary leaders in all areas next year,” he said. “We will not have the experience coming back that we had this year, so we will depend on his leadership, and that of Dylan Zimmerman and Nathan Ehrenberg, to lead us on next season’s journey.”
“Christian is a fierce competitor and that motivates him every day,” he said. “He expects to win every time he steps on the court.”
MC Record Player of the Year: 2012-13 Stats
Points: 758 (23.0)
Assists: 106 (3.2)
Rebounds: 153 (4.6)
Steals: 104 (3.2)
FGs: 248-of-465 (53%)
3PT FG: 66-of-136 (49%)
FT: 196-of-254 (77%)