Going in, it seemed as if Upsala and Little Falls would be hard-pressed to match what they had done on the same court a year ago.
During last year’s finals of the same Little Falls Pine Country Classic basketball tournament, the two teams played an overtime thriller, with Upsala escaping what would prove to be its greatest test in a perfect regular season.
In this year’s semifinals, Dec. 27, the two teams ratcheted up the intensity in another knock-down battle, with Upsala holding off the Flyers 71-61 on its way to the tournament title.
Little Falls seized early control of the game, opening on an 8-0 run, but Upsala slowly closed the gap as it took a slim 26-24 edge into halftime.
Neither team could create much separation in the second half, with Little Falls answering each time Upsala threatened to pull away.
The Flyers eventually pulled back within a basket at 63-61 with just more than a minute to play, but the Cardinals sealed the win with an 8-0 run to cap the contest in front of a packed and energetic crowd.
“It was very good,” Jordan said. “There was a good crowd and both teams were ready to play. I really felt our focus wasn’t at its best versus Zimmerman and Fergus Falls (leading into the tournament), but we were focused on the right things, defense and boards, going into the Upsala game.”
“Absolutely,” Upsala head coach Vern Capelle said. “We knew that we were going to be playing a very well-coached team that would be prepared for us. Fortunately, we had a few days to prepare for the game ourselves.
“We knew the games in the Little Falls tournament would be good tests for us,” he said. “The way the Flyers defend makes us prepare differently than we do for many of the teams on our schedule.”
Senior Christian Pekarek shook off a slow start from the field to score 29 points and senior Dylan Zimmerman racked up 22 to account for the vast majority of the Cardinals’ offensive production.
Junior Aidan Guthrie followed with seven points and senior Nathan Ehrenberg and junior Kyle Soltis each contributed five.
Little Falls received double-doubles from junior Bryce Zawatzke (14 points, 11 rebounds) and senior Mark Hanowski (11 points, 13 rebounds), with sophomore Riley Loukinen also netting 11 points.
Juniors Thomas Bell and Kyle Kabanuk each added eight points and senior Sebastian Sowada tallied seven, with Bell distributing seven assists and Sowada pulling down nine rebounds.
Upsala moved on to play another Class AAA opponent in the finals, Dec. 28, taking apart Albany 84-62 to claim the tournament title for the second year in a row.
Pekarek once again recorded 29 points and Zimmerman tacked on 16 to lead the Cardinals, this time joined in double figures by junior Jeremy Halverson with 15 points and Guthrie with 13.
Zimmerman also pulled in 15 rebounds and along with Pekarek distributed four assists, while Halverson, who sank five threes in the contest, made five steals.
For Upsala, which moved up to eighth in the Class A state rankings after the tournament, being able to knock off a pair of tough larger schools was a big boost to the team’s confidence.
“Definitely,” Capelle said. “We have a lot of inexperienced players that are figuring out their roles on this team. I think we had some excellent performances by these players in the tournament versus excellent competition.
“Aidan Guthrie, Jeremy Halverson, Jeffrey Halverson, Kyle Soltis and Keith Ripplinger all did some very good things during the tournament games and expanded their roles even more,” he said. “This helps our three seniors focus on what they do well and trust that their teammates will take care of their responsibilities.”
LF garners third place,
Holdingford finishes fourth
In the tournament’s other semifinal match-up, Albany advanced via a 69-43 victory over Holdingford.
Freshman Blake Patrick stepped up with 16 points and five rebounds to lead Holdingford.
Senior Zach Juaire followed with seven points, senior Jeremy Springer had six and junior Zach Ryan chipped in five.
That set up a match-up between Little Falls and Holdingford for third place the following day, with the Flyers securing a 53-34 victory.
Little Falls led 17-16 at the break, then saw its offensive output join its defensive tenacity in the second half to seal the win.
“I was pleased with the way we bounced back after a tough loss,” Jordan said. “The first half was a challenge offensively with tired legs and foul trouble with Bryce Zawatzke and Mark Hanowski.
“The second half was similar to our Alexandria game (a 62-59 win), where we played continuously at both ends of the floor,” he said. “Defensively, we were playing hard and communicating and offensively we were taking care of the ball and no one cared who scored. We were going after every loose ball whether it was on the floor or coming off the rim. That is a lot of fun watching when our team is in that state of mind.”
The Flyers possessed a thoroughly balanced offensive attack, with no players reaching double figures.
Senior Jake Loukinen, Bell and Kabanuk each had nine points, junior Brighton Goodrich scored seven and Riley Loukinen had six.
Hanowski added four points and 10 rebounds.
Junior Matt Vasilj and Springer both had 11 points for Holdingford, with junior Grant Bullert, Ryan and Juaire each adding four.
The all-tournament team included Pekarek, Zimmerman, Hanowski, Ryan and Albany’s Nick Racker.