WHS BOYS' BASKETBALL: RV stands between WHS and stateMARSHALL — Winning 16 of their 19 games since the calendar turned to 2012, the Worthington Trojans have improved their overall record from 4-3 to 20-6 in that span and are once again one win away from reaching the state high school boys’ basketball tournament.
By: Lucas Knutson, Worthington Daily Globe
MARSHALL — Winning 16 of their 19 games since the calendar turned to 2012, the Worthington Trojans have improved their overall record from 4-3 to 20-6 in that span and are once again one win away from reaching the state high school boys’ basketball tournament.
Fresh off a trio of wide-margin playoff wins to claim the Section 3AA South sub-section championship, Worthington gets a third opportunity to play Redwood Valley — this time for the Section 3AA crown. Tip-off is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.
The Class AA sixth-ranked Cardinals are 26-1 overall and won the Southwest Conference title with an 11-1 league mark — including two victories over the Trojans during a two-week stretch in January. Redwood claimed a 68-60 home victory on Jan. 13 and then earned a 65-56 road victory on Jan. 27, as Worthington finished third in the league standings with an 8-4 record.
Redwood, which won last year’s section championship with a dramatic four-overtime victory (60-58) over Windom and finished fourth at the state tournament, started this season with 15 straight wins. The Cardinals’ only setback came Jan. 31 in a 54-52 road loss to Marshall — which also defeated Worthington twice and was the conference runner-up with a 10-2 mark.
But since then, Redwood has won 11 consecutive games and held its opponents to fewer than 55 points eight times. The top-seeded and North sub-section champion Cardinals claimed playoff victories over Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop (73-34), BOLD (58-42) and Montevideo (48-46) to make it back to the section finals.
“We have improved defensively as the season has progressed,” Redwood head coach Markus Okeson said. “Our team defense has been a big key to our success, as we came into the year with only returning starter in Michael Busack. But we picked up some wins early in the season and gained both confidence and experience, as things have come together nicely for us.”
Size, balance are keys for Trojans
Worthington, which played in the Section 2AAA championship game in two of the previous three years, has also made improvements on the defensive end of the court throughout the season. The top-seeded Trojans held eight of their opponents to 55 points or less during their current 16-3 run, including in all three sub-section tournament wins — 85-43 over St. James, 62-41 over Luverne and 72-51 over Fairmont.
“Defense is the backbone of our team,” Worthington head coach Ron Vorwald said. “Playing great defense and rebounding the ball is contagious, as everyone is on board and buying into that concept. We have also been doing the little things and making the hustle plays consistently, which has contributed to our success, as well.”
Senior captains and three-year starters Mitch Weg (6-8 post) and Lucas Henning (6-3 guard) give the Trojans proven offensive threats, as they combined to pour in 53 of Worthington’s 72 points against Fairmont. Weg averages about 24 points and 13 rebounds per game, while Henning scores close to 12 points per game.
“We returned a good core of players coming into the season,” Vorwald said. “Mitch has been outstanding in all aspects of the game in the low-post area, and Lucas has been just as steady handling the ball and scoring from the perimeter. Those two guys do a great job as leaders and get our team ready to play night in and night out.”
Seniors Dan Wetering (6-3 forward) and Jon Reller (6-4 post), along with juniors Morgan Traylor (6-5 post; 11 points per game) and Jon Vorwald (6-2 guard), also returned from last year’s team and give the Trojans tremendous size and balance. Sophomores Marcus Potter (5-10 guard) and Spencer Grafing (6-3 forward), along with senior Tyler Verdoorn (6-3 forward), provide depth off the bench for Worthington.
“We will be undersized overall against Worthington, as they are big and strong throughout their lineup,” Okeson said. “We will need to be able to rebound well and push Weg away from the hoop, as he will score if he gets the ball in a good position down low. But we also have to contend with all of their other weapons, as they have great inside-out balance and have so many guys who can shoot from the perimeter — it will be a challenge to contain them.”
All of Worthington’s players are capable of scoring in double figures on any particular night, as the Trojans have limited their turnovers recently and executed well offensively.
“Our turnover rate has gone way down from early in the season, as we have been taking great care of the ball,” Ron Vorwald said. “Good things have been happening as a result. We have been aggressive in taking the ball to the basket and done a nice job of playing unselfishly to create open shots.”
Shooting, versatility help Cardinals
Both Worthington and Redwood score about 71 points per game, as the Cardinals also feature a variety of players who can put the ball in the hoop. Busack, a 6-4 senior guard, highlight’s Redwood’s attack with per-game averages of 27 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
“Michael is a very versatile player who can do a little bit of everything,” Okeson said. “He does whatever we need him to do at any position and is a great team player and leader. He is obviously a huge part of what we do on both ends of the court, but we have other very capable players, too.”
Senior Beau Stough (6-3 post) and four juniors — Alec Koster (5-11 guard), Jordan Ford (5-11 forward), Steven Runkel (5-11 guard) and RJ Juell (6-3 forward) — along with sophomores Adam Hengel (5-9 guard) and Thane Widmer (5-7 guard) all bring shooting skills and solid all-around play to the table for the Cardinals.
“Redwood has a terrific player in Busack, and we certainly need to try to limit his touches and keep him out of his comfort zone,” Ron Vorwald said. “They also have a very strong supporting cast and two other all-conference players, so we will have our hands full. They are a fundamentally-solid and well-coached group with a lot of talent in a lot of areas.”
Busack, Koster (13 points per game), Stough (10 points per game) and Runkel each knocked down a trio of 3-pointers in an 80-64 Cardinals’ victory at Windom on Dec. 20.
“Our guys play together extremely well and find the open man for good looks,” Okeson said. “We can shoot the ball pretty well, but defense is the big thing for us. Sometimes the ball doesn’t go in the basket as much as you want it to, so we’ve relied on our defense to keep us in a lot of games.”
That’s a similar approach that the Trojans have taken to get to this point — one win away from the state tournament.
“We are excited about the opportunity to play Thursday night,” Ron Vorwald said. “It’s going to take another great effort and solid team defense for all 36 minutes for us to get the job done. Hopefully we can limit our mistakes, get after them defensively and play harder than they do.”
The winner of Thursday’s game will play in the Class AA state tournament quarterfinals Wednesday night (March 21) at either Target Center or Williams Arena in Minneapolis.