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La Crosse boys win, off to great start

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

La CROSSE -- Two years ago, the La Crosse High School football team reached the first state championship game in school annals. After the title, boys' basketball coach Rob Holopirek had just one full week to prepare his players for games. La Crosse went 2-4 before the holiday break and eventually finished 11-10.

"I told myself that we skipped some of the basics that I thought we needed to get in, and then you can't really pull back and try to fix that later on," Holopirek said.

This fall, La Crosse again made the Class 2-1A state title game in football and lost 61-0 to Centralia. Since then, the Leopards have had just seven basketball practices and six games. La Crosse, which won eight contests all last year, opened 5-1 and moved to No. 7 in the Class 1A Division I coaches' rankings.

On Friday, the Leopards collected a 43-32 victory against Otis-Bison in the annual Rush County rivalry. La Crosse has allowed just 42 points per game after it permitted 48.8 points a contest last year.

"We have been keeping it real basic, real simple and so far, it seems like it's been the right decision," Holopirek said.

Just four players scored for both teams. For La Crosse, senior forward Taylor Yohe collected 15 points and 15 rebounds, including several key baskets and rebounds in the second half. The 6-foot-4 Yohe paces the Leopards with 13 points and eight rebounds a contest. Senior Marshall Jay added 10 points and five boards. La Crosse has won four of the last five versus Otis-Bison and the series is tied at 10 in the last 20 meetings.

"(Taylor) had a really big football season this year and kind of came out of his shell, and I was hoping that confidence would carry over, and it seems to have done so thus far," Holopirek said.

La Crosse held 6-foot-6 Cougar standout senior guard Kyle Patrick to 19 points and seven rebounds on 7 of 23 shooting, including 5 of 16 from 3-point range. Both teams struggled offensively, especially early. No one scored until Patrick made a trey from several feet beyond the arc with 4 minutes, 7 seconds left in the first quarter. Patrick averages around 23 points per contest.

Patrick fed several teammates for open shots early, but Otis-Bison couldn't convert. Otis-Bison (4-2) led 8-7 after the first quarter.

"You are going to hold a team to 40-some points, you ought to win the game," Cougar first-year coach Erin Patrick said. "Missing three or four or five two-footers in the first quarter, or in the first 10 minutes, we could have had them on their back. Maybe a 10-12 point lead."

In the second quarter, La Crosse built a 20-10 lead, but Otis-Bison scored eight points in the final 82 seconds and pulled within two at intermission. Patrick hit two treys in the run, including one right before the buzzer when he worked around two defenders.

"I was very pleased with our defense," Holopirek said. "I thought the kids did a nice job of defending. The shots he made, I thought were tough shots, and you have to give that kid a lot of credit. He is a good shooter."

The Leopards never trailed in the second half, though the lead never grew to double digits until the final 13.1 seconds. In the third quarter, Yohe had six rebounds, the same number as the entire Otis-Bison team. He scored early in the quarter off an offensive rebound. Later, he drove down the left side, had one-on-one with Patrick and went up-and-under for a basket.

"Last three years, we have been telling him, 'Taylor, you are a good player, you've got it in you,' " Holopirek said. "It's like the light has finally went off, and he is aggressive and he is a big strong kid, and he has got a lot of talent."

Before the contest, La Crosse talked about guarding Patrick with a bigger player. Instead, 5-foot-10 junior guard Jack Garcia mainly drew the assignment. As the game went, the assistant coaches kept telling Holopirek to leave in Garcia. The guard never scored on offense, but made shots difficult for Patrick as he worked inside and out and constantly maneuvered around screens.

Otis-Bison, which primarily plays three seniors, three freshmen and a sophomore, is more inexperienced than La Crosse's lineup that started four seniors and a junior, and brought another senior and junior off the bench.

"They are a very athletic team, and I am going to give them full credit on how they played defensively on us, pressurizing us," Coach Patrick said. "We have got some boys with inexperience that are there, but we just have to execute our offense better."

La Crosse led 33-25 after three quarters before Otis-Bison quickly closed to 33-30 with six minutes left. Senior Jake Reifschneider scored from a Garcia pass after La Crosse pushed the pace following a Patrick miss. Yohe added six points, the first coming after an offensive rebound. The second basket, from a great pass by senior Lucas Moeder, gave La Crosse a 39-32 lead and effectively put the contest out of reach.

"With as little practice as we have had, I was worried about it, but since Day 1, they've just really been in the flow right away," Holopirek said.

"You have to get them a lot of credit from bouncing back mentally and also physically."