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Panthers set to begin their quest

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WORTHINGTON -- For the Ellsworth Panthers, its' a trip they've made before.

For Granada-Huntley-East Chain, it's a whole new experience.

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While the Panthers (28-2) will be making their third straight appearance at the boys' state basketball tournament Thursday at 3 p.m. at Mariucci Arena on the University of Minnesota campus, the Mustangs (25-2) will experience the big stage for the first time.

"This is the first trip that we've made to state," G-H-EC head coach Robbin Celander said. "We've been pretty successful in the sections and gotten there, but we just could never get that last game. We're really excited."

Ellsworth has been successful in its previous trips, finishing second two years ago before winning a Class A state title last season. However, head coach Markus Okeson said the team doesn't appear to be feeling any pressure.

"I just told our kids that every team wants to knock us off," Okeson said. "Their goal is not only to win the games up there, but to be the ones to knock Ellsworth off. That's kind of the way that we're looking at every team that we'll be able to play. They want to be the team to dethrone us."

It will be a little different for the Mustangs this season. After cheering for the Panthers from the stands during their title run a season ago, this year they will be lining up opposite Ellsworth.

"We actually rooted for them last year at the state tournament," Celander said. "That was fun to watch them, and we sure rooted them on. It's nice to see a small school do well up there, so we know quite a bit about them."

While the Panthers will be vying for another state title, senior Cody Schilling will be attempting to set another record.

Schilling needs just 23 points to overtake Isaiah Dahlman's (2006 Braham Area graduate) record of 3,366 career points.

"It sounds pretty cool, and all your hard work that you put into it will pay off," Schilling said. "At the end of your career, you might be on the top of that list. After the season is over, and you look back on it, it will be pretty cool."

However, for Schilling, the record is an afterthought.

"Like I've been telling everybody, as long as we keep winning, the record should happen," Schilling said. "But right now, I'm so focused on winning another state title. We did it last year, so we want to do it again this year."

On the opposite side, Celander wouldn't mind giving Schilling the record as long as the Mustangs come out of the game victorious.

"We'll give him that, and we'll take the win," Celander said. "It doesn't matter who it's against. He's a nice player and if he gets that record, he's well deserving. If it's against us, it's against us."

But for the rest of the Panthers, the focus has been on the Mustangs, not the record.

"It hasn't been really brought up or anything like that; he'd trade all those points for three more wins," Okeson said of Schilling. "This whole postseason, for him to break that record, our team was going to have to win games, and that's what we've done. So he has a realistic shot now."

To Okeson, Schilling isn't showing any signs of pressure.

"If he is, I can't tell; I think he's taking one game at a time and focused on getting a win on Thursday," Okeson said. "Us winning the state title put us on the map, if Cody happens to break the scoring record it couldn't happen to a better kid, and it's great for the community as well."

While Schilling would rather take a victory Thursday, the task will not be easy.

The Mustangs have lost a mere two games this season -- both to Class AA state qualifier Maple River.

On the opposite side, Ellsworth has not lost to a Class A team this season either. The Panthers were defeated by Rochester Mayo (a Class AAAA state qualifier) and George-Little Rock, who finished runner-up in Class 1A in Iowa.

G-H-EC is fresh off a 77-45 victory over Buffalo Lake-Hector in the Section 2A finals to advance to Thursday's game.

"We played really well the first half," Celander said. "We were up there last year, and I think that really helped us. We played well, but they struggled a little bit."

The Mustangs average 70 points per contest, and will bring a potent inside game.

"They've been winning the last couple of games by 20 or 30 points, so they are playing really well right now," Schilling said. "We're going to have to play an almost perfect game."

Defensively, the Panthers will have a tough task. Tim Garry (6-5) and Jake Shoen (6-5) average 14 and 12 points, respectively. Dan Stensland (6-3) is the other G-H-EC player to average double figures, with 14 points per contest.

However, the Mustangs have more than just three weapons.

"We have three kids that average eight points, and we've had six different kids lead us in scoring this year at different times, so we're pretty balanced," Celander said. "We have a nice inside game, and I'm sure we're going to try to use it against them."

While the Mustangs will attempt to slow the tempo, the Panthers have the advantage of already facing a team with a slower pace in Dawson-Boyd -- the team Ellsworth defeated in the Section 3A championship.

"They are very similar (to Dawson-Boyd)," Okeson said. "They maybe aren't as quick, but they are definitely bigger and are probably looking to bang a little more."

At 6-8, Ellsworth's Trevor Gruis will be the tallest player on the floor. However, the sophomore will need a solid game for a Panther victory.

"I expect him to step up and do what he's done throughout the season, for the most part," Okeson said of Gruis. "I think he's chomping at the bit to get an opportunity to play -- come out and have a better showing."

Gruis scored four points against D-B, but Ellsworth's supporting cast came through when it was needed most.

"From the seniors, I expect what I'm going to get," Okeson said. "We just need some of the younger kids to step up. Like a Trevor Gruis or an Adam Van Der Stoep. They need to have nice ballgames for us in order to come out on top."

Van Der Stoep scored nine points against the Blackjacks, but made the shots when it counted.

"He hit some very timely 3s for us in the Dawson-Boyd game in the second half," Okeson said.

For Schilling and the Panthers, their state tournament experience gives them a slight advantage.

"The experience helps a little bit," Okeson said. "I think for the whole process in general, of being up there, of staying in a hotel, of seeing all these people, I think that's the experience that will benefit us. We're not going to exert extra energy by not being able to sleep at night or something like that because we've done it before."

And for the players who weren't major contributors last season, this year will provide a chance to shine.

"Me and Weston have been there the last couple of years," Schilling said. "But as far as Trevor, Brandon and Adam, they were on the team last year, but they really didn't get to play. But they were around it, and I think that makes them want it more because they had to sit on the bench and watch us do it last year."

Schilling enters the game averaging 28 points, 10 assists and 9.5 rebounds per contest.

"The one thing is that he's such a good player that he makes everybody else around him so much better," Celander said. "That's the scary thing, and we know that."

Trevor Gruis averages 15 points per game, while Van Der Stoep scores 10 per contest for Ellsworth. The Panthers have no reason to change anything now.

"We're going to stick with what works," Okeson said. "We're going to push the basketball when we can and, hopefully, limit our turnovers and take good shots."

With both teams set for the tip-off, Celander has nothing but respect for the small-town team.

"We're thrilled to be there, and I respect Ellsworth," Celander said. "Markus has done a nice job with that program, and to do that as a small school, I respect that a lot."

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