Ellsworth sophomore, Trevor Gruis, stepping up for Panthers this season
MINNEAPOLIS -- Despite having a player like Cody Schilling and a state championship in the trophy case in Ellsworth, the Panthers knew that one player wouldn't take the small-town team back to glory this season.
That's where sophomore Trevor Gruis came in.
"We needed another guy to step up, and he's filled in," Schilling said of Trevor Gruis. "After Aaron (Van Der Stoep) graduated last year, people said in order for you guys to be good, someone's going to have to step up and help Cody. I think Trevor has stepped into that two hole about as best as he could."
While Schilling has lived up to his billing by becoming the state's all-time leading scorer, Gruis has become a dangerous offensive force. Gruis entered the state tournament averaging 15 points a contest, second on the team to Schilling.
"He's just taking advantage of his opportunity," Ellsworth head coach Markus Okeson said. "He's got some playing time, and he's playing very well. He's grown throughout the season. He's starting to realize that being the (center), you're going to get banged around a little bit. But he's getting better and better every game."
At 6-8, Gruis has provided the Panthers with a strong post game and is a major reason why the Panthers are returning to the state championship game for the third consecutive year. The sophomore averages nearly nine rebounds a contest and has blocked 68 shots this season.
"He's been very consistent," Okeson said. "He scored in the paint, made his free throws, got some rebounds and blocked a few shots. So he's done a nice job for us."
However, Gruis admits that his team has helped him this season as well.
"I think I've matured a long way since last year," Gruis said. "That goes a lot towards my team, too."
But for Gruis, his team goes beyond his classmates. His older brother, Brandon, is a senior on this year's squad and joins Trevor in the starting lineup.
"It's real cool," Trevor said of playing with Brandon. "If I give him a pass, and he makes a shot, that's real special. It's really cool to play with your brother."
As the elder Gruis, Brandon has been able to help Trevor come into his own.
"He's helped me a lot," Trevor said. "He keeps me upbeat and positive. He gets my defense up there, so I don't have to work as hard on defense, and I appreciate that a lot."
And in Brandon's last high school season, having his brother by his side has made this year's state tournament trip all the more memorable.
"It means a lot," Brandon said. "We've been playing against each other out on the farm all our lives, so it's kind of nice to be right here with him."
Even in practice, Okeson notices that Brandon helps Trevor become a better player.
"He'll push him in practice a lot, and push him in games," Okeson said. "He'll tell him to keep his head up and keep his chin up because Brandon's a senior and Trevor's a sophomore, so he's a good role model for him."
While Gruis has come into his own as a scorer, he has proved that he can pass the ball as well. Entering the tournament, Gruis was second on the team with 120 assists.
"If we give him post touches, what's good about him is that he can score, but he's not a black hole," Schilling said. "He can kick it out, or if I cut through the lane, he can hit me with a pass. His game is really complete now. At the beginning of the season it wasn't there, but every game he's getting better and better and stronger and stronger."
After a 19-point, 14- rebound performance in the Panther's first-round victory over Granada-Huntley-East Chain, Gruis scored 10 points and had nine rebounds in Ellsworth's semifinal victory over Norman County East.
"He's played way more physical and goes at it more," Brandon said. "At the beginning of the year, he kind of faded away and wanted to go away from it, but now he'll go right at them and get fouls, get rebounds and get putbacks. He's doing a good job."
Gruis also had two blocks and three assists against NCE.
"Every game he's getting stronger and finishing around the basket better," Schilling said. "Earlier in the season he was getting pushed out, and they were going at him, and he was tentative on defense. But now, if you go up to him he'll block your shot. He's just playing great for us."
As well as Gruis is playing for the Panthers, he admits this is a dream come true.
"It's just been awesome to come up here to the state tournament my first year on the varsity," Trevor said. "Starting is awesome, and I'm just living the dream."
With this season one game away from concluding, next season Schilling will pass the torch to the younger Gruis.
"Next year he's going to take over from where I left off, and that's going to be great to see," Schilling said.
While Gruis will need to be a factor if the Panthers are to win their second title in as many years, a championship for the Gruis brothers would be a great way to cap the year and return to glory.
"We were on the team last year, so we saw how it had to be done and what it takes," Brandon said. "I think it would mean a lot to our community, and obviously, what's better than winning a state championship with family."
"It would be great to bring that trophy home," Trevor added. "That would be awesome."