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PREP BOYS BASKETBALL: New look Wolverines hope to make run at state tourney

File Photo MLA's Carter Kirk (40) goes up for a shot against JCC's Nolan Hohenstein (right) during a boys basketball game in Jackson.

MINNEAPOLIS -- For the second year in a row, the Mountain Lake Area boys basketball team is making an appearance at the Class A State Tournament. However, this team isn't quite the same as the one that finished fourth a year ago.

"Last year, we were cooped with Butterfield-Odin, but that coop dissolved last spring and now we have combined with [Mountain Lake] Christian," MLA coach Shawn Naas said. "The guys played together this summer, but it took us a while to get things together as a team."

Another difference from last season for Mountain Lake Area is the fact that just two players have experienced basketball at the state level.

"Carter Kirk and Andrew Hempeck are the only two players who were at state last year for us," Naas said. "But the kids who weren't there are asking those two questions about what it is like and how to adjust to different things."

Even though Mountain Lake Area has finally hit its stride coming into the state tournament, the Wolverines lost their first two games of the season. But, from there on out, they lost just three games coming into today's game against the Maranatha Christian Academy Mustangs.

"We won 16 games in a row after those first two losses and lost just two conference games," Naas said. "It took us a while to mesh with the new kids, but this team now understands what it takes to win."

A strength Mountain Lake Area will rely on heavily at state is its shutdown defense.

"We pride ourselves on our defense," Naas said. "We have improved on it throughout the season and we will need to play good defense against Maranatha Christian."

One of the challenges the Wolverines will face against the No. 1-seeded Mustangs is the sheer athleticism and depth that Maranatha Christian can put on the floor for two halves.

"They are athletic up and down the bench," Naas said. "All seven of their guys can shoot the 3-ball and they can have five kids on the floor at the same time who are all very good players."

For the Wolverines to take down the top-seeded Mustangs, Naas knows they will have to play their best game of the season and make sure to play their game.

"We are going to need to control the tempo of the game for one thing," Naas said. "We'll have to be patient on offense as well and take care of the ball. We can't just take the first shot we see. Patience will be key if we want to run our offense and not let Maranatha control the game."

Despite the steep challenge Mountain Lake Area faces in the first round, Naas believes that playing the first game of the Class A tournament might be to the Wolverines' advantage.

"I think we will have less jitters since we are playing in the first game of the day," Naas said. "It will hopefully allow us to be more relaxed and play our game."

It will also be important for the Wolverines to not rely too heavily on Kirk for all their scoring and rebounding.

"We can't just rely on Kirk for points in this game," Naas said. "We will need to share the ball and get scoring from four or five of our guys if we want to win. But we will need Kirk, Hempeck and Josiah Stoesz for their leadership and defensive abilities."

Mountain Lake Area faces Maranatha Christian today at 11 a.m. at Williams Arena on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.