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Northern Valley boys punch state ticket

By CONOR NICHOLL
cnicholl@dailynews.net

GRAINFIELD – On Jan. 18, the Almena-Northern Valley High School boys’ basketball team defeated Weskan by 11 for the Western Kansas Liberty League tournament title. In the celebration photo shoot, the Huskies brought in a No. 12 jersey for former teammate Eli Lowry, who died after a car accident on Nov. 3.

On Saturday night, Northern Valley earned a 44-27 victory against Triplains-Brewster in the Class 1A Division II sub-state championship game at Wheatland-Grinnell High School.

As the players lined up on the court by the Huskies’ bench for photos, junior Matt Stutsman quickly ran to the locker room and came back with a No. 12 jersey.

“We thought we’d do it again,” Stutsman said. “Honor him.”

Northern Valley has battled through multiple obstacles this season. In addition to Lowry’s death, the Huskies had several suspensions to key players and endured a six-game losing streak just before sub-state.

The Huskies lost 40-39 to Triplains-Brewster in the final regular season game after a 48-38 victory in the league tournament semifinals. At sub-state, Northern Valley defeated Wheatland-Grinnell 55-32 in its first game before Saturday’s victory.

“Against Triplains, when we lost, we didn’t play our best basketball,” Stutsman said. “But we played two good games in sub-state.”

Northern Valley, the tournament’s No. 2 seed behind the Titans, improved to 13-10. Outside of senior Hunter Chandler qualifying in state track, no current Husky has enjoyed state playoff participation in any sport. The Huskies are back to state for the first time since 1992 and sixth time in school history, according to state historian Carol Swenson.

“It’s great,” senior Jordan Baird said. “We’ve worked all four years. We came up shy against Dighton last year. … It feels good to finally get over the hump and get to state in something.”

Triplains-Brewster led 8-4 after the first quarter, but Northern Valley took a 19-18 lead when junior Clint Cole hit a turnaround jumper with a minute to go for the final points of the half. Cole, with his perpetually reserved personality and nice jumper, paced the Huskies with 15 points.

“He just steps up, and he makes his shots,” Stutsman said. “Doesn’t really say anything. He does real good.”

In a slow-moving contest, only Class 4A Division I Spring Hill (24 points) scored fewer points than the Titans in Saturday's statewide sub-state contests.

“We talked about that, playing within the offense, and not trying to do too much and win the game by yourself,” Northern Valley coach Chuck Fessenden said. “Just play as a team, work the ball. They are sitting in a zone, which makes it harder. You’ve got to take a little time to get a good shot. I thought we did a pretty good job. We was pretty patient for the most part.”

Northern Valley, paced by two more Cole jumpers, moved the lead to 30-21 entering the fourth. Triplains-Brewster had six turnovers in the third quarter and five in the fourth, including several unforced errors. Officials whistled the Titans twice early in the fourth quarter for three seconds in the lane.

Sophomore Coleton Rogge had eight points, but none after he made a basket early in the third quarter. Then, Triplains-Brewster missed seven straight shots and 10 of 11.

“In the first half, we gave up some penetration,” Fessenden said. “They were kicking it out, and they hit some 3s. I thought they were shooting really well. They were – they were about 4 out of 10. I thought they were about 4 out of 6 from the 3-point line. But then second half, we tried not to give up penetration and told Matt Stutsman not to leave the Rogge kid at all. In the first half, he left him a couple of times trying to help on the penetration.”

Baird, the team’s leading scorer at 12 points per contest, took over with several drives and jumpers. He scored the final basket of the third quarter and then two baskets early in the fourth quarter to put Northern Valley up 36-24 with 5:14 left.

“We pulled it together in sub-state and came through with a win,” Stutsman said. “We have had a lot of good practices the past few days, and we just went out and played hard, and I think we wanted it more.”

Northern Valley 44, Triplains-Brewster 27
Northern Valley 4 15 11 14 – 44
Triplains-Brewster 8 10 3 6 – 27
Northern Valley – Clint Cole 15, Stutsman 9, Cox 4, Chandler 5, Baird 9, Reid 2.
Triplains-Brewster – Gfeller 3, Ja. Schmidt 2, Felzien 2, Ju. Schmidt 4, Jorgensen 1, Smith 4, Stramel 3, Rogge 8.