WORTHINGTON -- Outscoring its opponents 1,201 to 945 since Jan. 17, the red-hot Worthington Trojans boys' basketball team has won 15 of its last 16 games and is now one more win away from reaching the Class AAA state tournament.
Seven of those 15 wins were by at least 20-point margins, as the Trojans -- who led Section 2AAA in both offensive (71.1 points scored per game) and defensive (57.2 points allowed per game) scoring averages -- have been on an impressive tear ever since suffering a 78-51 loss at Redwood Valley on Jan. 14.
Second-seeded Worthington (21-4) has lost only three other games all year long -- two of them to the top-seeded and Southwest Conference champion Marshall Tigers (20-8). Long-time rivals with rich basketball traditions, the Trojans and the Tigers meet Thursday night in the section championship game with a state-tournament berth at stake.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Minnesota State University-Mankato's Taylor Center in Mankato. The winner will advance to the state tournament, which begins March 23 at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
"We are playing our best basketball at the right time," Worthington head coach Ron Vorwald said Tuesday night. "The chemistry on our team is outstanding, and we have been playing unselfishly with great balance and passion for the game. This has been a very fun season with a great group of guys who all get along with each other and enjoy playing basketball together."
Marshall, which has won 10 of its last 12 games, defeated Worthington in both of the teams' regular-season matchups -- winning the league crown with an 11-1 mark, two games ahead of the runner-up Trojans at 9-3. The Tigers overcame a 19-point, first-half deficit (30-11) and claimed a 68-59 victory at Worthington on Dec. 17, and then rallied from a pair of early nine-point margins (9-0 and 16-7) to earn a 65-55 victory at Marshall on Feb. 18.
"Marshall has a very good team that is well-coached," Vorwald said. "They are deep and athletic, and they really come after you with a variety of looks in terms of defensive pressure. We are going to have be strong and assertive with the ball against the Tigers, who also attack the basket well and have some very good shooters on the offensive end."
Senior guard Caleb Johnson (6-2) is the catalyst, and according to head coach Tom Critchley, "does it all" for the Tigers, as he averages 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game. Johnson scored a combined 43 points (20, 23) against Worthington this year.
"Caleb is an excellent high school basketball player and really makes our team go," Critchley said. "We also have several other good players who have gained more and more experience and confidence as the season has progressed. We had a couple of guys out with injuries throughout the season, but we are now starting to get fully healthy."
Senior forward Collin Hoover (6-3) is the main post player for Marshall, which plays with four guards on the court most of the time. Hoover averages eight points and eight rebounds per game for the Tigers, who advanced in the playoffs with victories over eighth-seeded New Ulm (78-60) and fourth-seeded Mankato East (65-62 in overtime).
Guards Ben Sanders (6-0 junior, 12 ppg), Lee Christianson (6-3 junior, 10 ppg), Shawn Tykwinski (6-0 junior, nine ppg), Mason Schnaible (6-2 junior), Beau Bofferding (5-9 junior) and Austin Saugstad (6-0 sophomore) are among the other key contributors for the Tigers, who do not have a set starting lineup and typically play up to nine, 10 or 11 guys depending on particular matchups with their opponents.
"We play a lot of guys, and we have a pretty good overall basketball IQ on our team," summed up Critchley, who is in his seventh season with the Tigers. "We have played consistent basketball for most of the season, which allowed us to win the conference and secure the number-one seed."
Meanwhile, Worthington was able to capture the number-two seed with big wins in the final month-and-a-half of the season. After having a 10-game winning streak -- from Jan. 17 to Feb. 15 -- snapped by Marshall, the Trojans earned large-margin victories over Martin County West (76-46), New Ulm (88-52) and Mankato East (90-70) to conclude the regular season.
"Our biggest win of the year was the Mankato East game, as that enabled us to get the number-two seed," said Vorwald, who is in his 22nd season as coach of the Trojans. "We then got to play two tournament games at our place, playing well enough in each to advance to the championship. I'm very proud of our guys for working hard and playing as a team -- things have come together nicely for us this year."
The Trojans, who defeated seventh-seeded Dassel-Cokato (86-76) and third-seeded Hutchinson (76-69) to extend their current winning streak to five games, have scored 75 or more points in 10 different games this season -- including each of the last five and four other times during their previous 10-game surge.
Twin towers Jalen Voss (6-7 senior post) and Mitch Weg (6-7 junior post) have supplied much of the offensive firepower for Worthington, with both averaging a double-double. Voss scores 19 points and grabs 11 rebounds per game, while Weg scores 15 points and also rips down 11 rebounds per game.
"Jalen and Mitch have both been outstanding in the low-post area all season long," Vorwald said. "They give us two great scoring options down low and help us control the boards, as we have only been outrebounded a couple of times this year. They also work well together and pass the ball to each other effectively, as they have improved their games and just been stellar players for us."
Left-handed guards Lucas Henning (6-3 junior, 11 ppg) and Michael Singsaath (5-10 senior, nine ppg) share the primary ball-handling responsibilities for Worthington, and each averages about four or five assists per game. Those two, along with junior forward Dan Wetering (6-2, six ppg), give the Trojans a trio of threats to knock down shots from the perimeter.
"Lucas, Michael and Dan all can hit the 3 and have done a nice job of helping us improve our turnover issue throughout the season," explained Vorwald, who pointed out that the Trojans had a season-low eight turnovers against Hutchinson last Saturday. "We have done a better job of taking care of the ball and valuing every possession late in the season, and that's a big key for us against Marshall."
Sophomores Morgan Traylor (6-6 post) and Jon Vorwald (6-2 guard) complement each other well off of the Trojan bench. Coach Vorwald noted that Traylor is capable of running the floor and providing instant offense, while Vorwald comes in as a contributing defender and playmaker.
"Everything Worthington does starts with their two big guys, who are both very good players," Critchley said. "You have to try to limit their touches and slow them down, but you know that they're going to get their points eventually. The Trojans also have three great shooters who can put the ball in the basket in a hurry, so we'll have to get out and contest their shots.
"We are going to try and wear Worthington down with our depth and defensive pressure," continued Critchley. "That's how we've played all year long, and we're expecting a real battle on Thursday night. It's always a fierce rivalry between Marshall and Worthington."
Marshall is seeking its first trip to the state tournament since 2001, which was also the last time the Tigers advanced to the section title game. Worthington reached this round two years ago in 2009 and is looking for its first state-tournament berth since 1999.
"We are excited about this opportunity and looking forward to the challenge," summed up Ron Vorwald. "We have to defend and rebound to the best of our abilities, as well as continue to value the ball and shoot well -- particular from the free-throw line, which has been huge for us. We know that we can compete with Marshall, but we have to sustain a high level of play for the entire game."