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Quarterfinal features surprises

LUVERNE -- A pair of teams that are somewhat surprise entrants in this week's State High School boys' basketball tournament tangle at 1 p.m. Thursday at Williams Arena, on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

Playing in the second game of the quarterfinal round of the Class AA tourney, the Luverne Cardinals (20-7) square off against the Plainview-Elgin-Millville Bulldogs (18-12).

In their first-year as a consolidated program, the Bulldogs have been on a roller coaster ride in the win-loss column most of the season. After winning just six of its first 13 games, P-E-M won three-of-four, improving to 9-8 before a four-game losing streak dropped the Bulldogs to 9-12.

"The kids were working hard, but not getting the results they wanted," said head coach Kirk Thompson, who took Plainview to the state tournament in 2004. "We play an up-tempo style and once we got back in the win column, the results have been matching the effort."

Starting with a high-scoring 88-55 victory at Wabasha-Kellogg on Feb. 13, the Bulldogs have reeled off nine consecutive victories, including Section 1AA tournament wins over Lewiston-Altura (76-68 in overtime), Winona Cotter (70-59), LaCrescent (69-66 in overtime) and Byron (46-33).

Undefeated Kingsland -- the state's second-ranked AA team (behind three-time state champion Braham) -- was knocked off by Byron (39-38) in the West sub-section finals.

But, the Bulldogs -- who were seeded fifth in the East -- pulled their fourth consecutive tournament upset, defeating the Bears by 13 points in the section championship game.

"We know that Plainview/Elgin-Millville will press and run the floor," said Luverne head coach Tom Rops, who is taking the Cardinals back to the state tournament for the second time in a three-year span. "They run a 2-2-1 zone press and tend to drop back into a zone defense, but will also play some man-to-man. The Bulldogs run motion offense and like to use their defensive pressure to create offense."

Balanced scoring has been a key for P-E-M's late-season success, as the Bulldogs frequently go nine deep and nearly every one of those players is capable of hitting the 3-point shot.

Juniors Zach Flies (18 points per game) and Tony Theisen (10 ppg) both average in double figures, as does six-foot freshman Clay Olstad (11.2 ppg). Flies (6-foot-4) also averages nearly eight rebounds per game and has connected 36 times from 3-point range this season.

Theisen (6-foot-1), a three-year starter, missed 14 games in mid-season with a broken arm, but his return has been a big boost to the Bulldog tournament run.

Senior forward Adam Endres (6-foot-4) and sophomore Andrew Larson (5-foot-9) are usually P-E-M's other two starters, while senior Matt Schulz (6-foot), sophomores Matt Pick (6-foot) and Ross Grobe (5-foot-10), along with eighth-grade sharpshooter Cole Olstad (6-foot-1), give Thompson lots of depth and options.

Cole Olstad came off the bench and sank a trio of 3-pointers in the second half of P-E-M's victory over Byron.

"Cole hit a huge shot that silenced a Byron rally," Thompson said. "We play a great all-around game to earn and maintain the lead against a much bigger, more physical, team. It was probably our best overall 36 minutes of the year."

While P-E-M is not especially tall, it likes to play at a fast pace. All four of the Bulldogs' tournament victories came against teams that had defeated them during the season.

"We know that Luverne has done much the same thing and we know they have a solid team that will be a tough challenge for us," Thompson summarized.

Luverne will have a height advantage, as Cardinals seniors Marc Boelman and Derek Boeve -- both standing 6-foot-6 --can score in a variety of ways.

Boeve, the team's leading scorer, draws lots of fouls -- he's attempted 245 free throws this season.

Senior Andrew DeBoer (6-2) and junior Weston Sawtelle (6-3) both can score, as evidenced by their combined 38 points in Luverne's Section 3AA championship victory over Benson.

The fifth LHS starter is senior Jake Clark (6-0), who draws praise from Rops for his steady all-around play.

"Jake is extremely low maintenance," Rops declared. "He doesn't worry about how his stats look. His main stat is the wins. He does score when needed, but his main role is to play defense on the other team's best perimeter player, take care of the ball and screen."

Judging from the outstanding team play of the Cardinals in the section tournament, it would appear that Clark's approach to the game is contagious.

"We are not flashy," maintained Rops. "Discipline, defense and attitude is our philosophy. These kids have really bought into the system."

Giving the Cardinals good play off the bench have been juniors Kyle Heronimus, Jeremy Hoff and Erik Stegemann -- each contributing key minutes in various game situations throughout the year.

Luverne has a rich heritage in the state basketball tournament, having previously sent teams in 1913, 1935, 1936, 1938, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971, 1983 and 2005.

The '64 Cardinals had five losses during the season, but got better as tournament play continued, winning the state championship.

Among the other years that LHS teams brought home state tournament trophies were '67 (consolation), '83 (runner-up) and '05 (third place).

Boelman, Boeve, Clark and DeBoer were all sophomore reserves on Luverne's 2005 team that defeated Moose Lake/Willow River in the quarterfinals, lost to Crookston in the semifinals and finished the season with a victory over Rockford in the third-place game.

The Cardinals are hoping that the experience of being there before will be helpful to their quest to keep the LHS state tournament tradition going when they hit the floor against the Bulldogs Thursday.