We’re starting to see significant movement in the ratings for the first time this season, especially around the middle of each poll. Some decisions were made based on results against common opponents. Others were made on more of an eye test. Here’re some examples.
Norfolk Catholic overtakes Wayne after beating the Blue Devils by 12 on Thursday. Ainsworth now holds the third spot in Class D over Elgin Public/Pope John. The Wolfpack lost to Elkhorn Valley on the road in December, but Ainsworth beat the Falcons during the Elkhorn Valley holiday tournament. The Wolfpack overtake Humphrey St. Francis on account of their two wins over Riverside, which St. Francis lost to at home. Even though Wausa defeated Santee by 10 on Monday, Walthill beat Santee by 11 and didn’t need overtime to do it.
All that said, this week we’re focusing on the team that now holds the No. 2 spot in Class C — one that started off the season on the wrong foot but never wavered and is getting better each week.
It’s never ideal to lose your first game of the season, even when it’s to the defending champion of Class D1 in Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family. However, the adversity was nothing the Clarkson/Leigh Patriots couldn’t handle, and they've proven it with the way they’ve played ever since.
Since that season-opening loss, the Patriots are now on a nine-game winning streak, one that includes a comeback win over Oakland-Craig and a road win against Howells-Dodge.
“In games where we’ve gotten down or played tough opponents, they’re really good about pulling together and even in bad stretches, just picking themselves up,” coach Jeff Bachman said. “They’ve been through a lot of tough times and tough games, and they’ve definitely grown from them.”
The roster includes two four-year starters and two who’ve started every game they’ve played for Clarkson/Leigh. These players lead a team that has put a lot of focus on one thing; Defense.
“We’ve spent a lot of practice time working on our man-to-man defense and different defensive fundamentals, and the guys have really bought into that,” Bachman said. “They’ve really accepted that chance for us to be successful.”
The result is a unit that allows 39.1 points a game along with 5.4 blocks, 3.9 of which come from senior Carter Hanel.
The Patriots’ conference of the East Husker is a tough one year in and year out. It not only holds the top three spots in this week’s polls, but also two defending finalists and a champion from 2020 in BRLD. For Bachman, that serves as an opportunity to remain vigilant, with the conference tournament starting Friday, Jan. 28.
“We know that on any given night, any team can beat anybody,” he said. “It helps us stay focused, helps us stay grounded, and it helps make it easy for us to stress the importance of every single game and, of course, that prepares us for postseason play.”
Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family has shown no signs of slowing down. Since the last column, the Bulldogs took care of business on Tuesday with a 67-39 win over Wisner-Pilger. The Bulldogs are winning their games by an average of 27.5 points, but the week ahead may test that. They face Neligh-Oakdale on Thursday and Summerland on Friday. Then on Tuesday, they head west on Highway 91 for a state championship rematch with Howells-Dodge, one that will have huge implications in the East Husker Conference.
Four players have been instrumental to the hot streak Clarkson/Leigh’s been on. Aside from Carter Hanel’s dominance on the interior, there’s also Jarred Novotny, who now leads the Patriots with 16.5 points per game after sitting out last season with an injury. Along with those two, Eli Hays and Kyle Kasik also serve as great defenders. All four have started every game they’ve played in for the Patriots. They’ll look for win number 10 at Humphrey St. Francis on Friday.
Dominant wins at Humphrey St. Francis and home against Guardian Angels Central Catholic have the Jaguars in the No. 3 spot. I got to cover the St. Francis game, and the Jags looked like a complete team. Blake Sindelar is still capable of putting up numbers as he did in last year’s state tournament, but so far he hasn’t had to, not with R.J. Bayer and Gavin Nelson leading a strong roster. This upcoming week features a Saturday showdown at Mead, which is looking like one of the best teams in D1, before Tuesday’s showdown with Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family.
Norfolk Catholic takes the fourth spot in Class C after handing Wayne a 38-26 loss, its first of the season. The Knights’ defense is allowing just 36.1 points a game and has allowed 40 or more in just two games this season. It will be tested this week with two big Mid-State Conference games ahead. They play at Crofton on Saturday, then travel up Highway 13 to play Pierce on Tuesday.
After being held to just 26 points against the Knights, Wayne combined to score 109 points in wins over Boone Central and Laurel-Concord-Coleridge. The defense will take the Blue Devils far, but they’ll need to establish themselves in the post to be one of C1’s best, which I think they’re capable of. They’ll have three games this coming week against North Bend Central, Boys Town and Crofton.
Although it remains No. 6 in the rankings, Hartington Cedar Catholic continues to improve with a big win at Laurel-Concord-Coleridge on Thursday before beating then-undefeated Wynot on Tuesday. Jaxon Bernecker has scored 48 points over those games and continues to be the tone-setter for an offense that can score in all kinds of ways. Only one game awaits this week, a Friday road trip to take on Pierce.
It’s hard to drop Laurel-Concord-Coleridge far when two of its losses have been to two state semifinalists. That said, it’ll need to be able to compete more in games like that to be among Class C2’s best. LCC will travel to face Tri County Northeast on Thursday, then return home to face Walthill, which it lost to in last year’s subdistrict final.
Lutheran High Northeast dominated in wins over Wausa and Niobrara/Verdigre to win the Wausa postholiday tournament. The Eagles continue to find contributors who can help in a variety of ways on both sides of the ball. Next up are home games against Battle Creek on Thursday and Clarkson/Leigh on Tuesday.
Wakefield, Elkhorn Valley, O’Neill and North Bend Central were among those who received consideration.
O’Neill St. Mary’s stays on top of Class D after wins at Anselmo-Merna and Bloomfield. The Cardinals have yet to lose to anyone below Class C2. They travel to face Summerland and Chambers/Wheeler Central on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. However, I’m more interested in their game on Tuesday, a home contest against an aggressive, high-octane Santee Warriors team.
Wynot is undefeated no more, but coach Lane Heimes feels his team got better in the loss at Cedar Catholic. Many of the younger players are beginning to step up, which is a great sign for depth as the season goes on. This week, it’ll host Winnebago on Friday and Creighton on Tuesday.
Ainsworth takes the leap to No. 3 after wins at Class C1 Minden and at home against Boyd County. The Bulldogs have scored at least 60 points in four of their past six games and are doing so with a roster where three of their top five scorers are sophomores. Another C1 opponent awaits on Thursday in O’Neill.
Elgin Public/Pope John has now won seven straight after falling to Elkhorn Valley in December. It’s yet another team that’s going to make the Niobrara Valley Conference an interesting one to watch as the season goes on. Sound basketball and defensive rebounding will be big keys for this team going forward. On Friday, it travels for a tough conference matchup against Stuart before hosting Winside on Saturday.
Humphrey St. Francis has lost three of its past four games, but all of them came to teams between Classes D1 and C1. That’s not much to be ashamed of, but I feel as though the Flyers need to get help from more of their players besides Tanner Pfeifer and Colton Wietfeld. Their remaining schedule doesn’t get much easier. They play C1 Clarkson/Leigh on Friday, then head into the Goldenrod Conference tournament starting on Tuesday, Jan. 18.
If you remember last week’s column, you know how I mentioned that Stuart needs to be able to win games where the offense might not score as much, specifically less than 50 points. Well, it’s since beaten Neligh-Oakdale and Chambers/Wheeler Central, scoring 46 and 47 points, respectively. This team is starting to become more complete and will need that for Friday’s game against Elgin Public/Pope John.
Walthill struggled mightily against Wakefield in a 78-55 loss last Friday. It was blocked four times, outrebounded 41-31 and allowed the Trojans to shoot 39% from beyond the arc. This team needs to be more physical and tough to get back to the state tournament as they did last year. They host Winside on Thursday, then travel to Laurel-Concord-Coleridge next Friday.
Wausa showed tremendous resilience in its win against Santee on Monday, coming back from a 14-point halftime deficit to force overtime and win by 10. Jaxon Claussen is a threat to score when driving to the hoop and from the field while Jon Nissen is a strong presence underneath. This win was sorely needed after losses to Lutheran High Northeast and Osmond in its own postholiday tournament. Now the Vikings have shown the kind of threat they can pose to any team when they’re at their best. They travel to face Randolph on Friday, then host Elkhorn Valley on Tuesday.
Although they didn’t crack the rankings, Santee received strong consideration.
This Week’s Games to Watch
Thursday: Battle Creek at Lutheran High Northeast; Ainsworth at O’Neill; North Bend Central at Wayne.
Friday: Clarkson/Leigh at Humphrey St. Francis; Walthill at Laurel-Concord-Coleridge; Elgin Public/Pope John at Stuart.
Saturday: Fremont Bergan at North Bend Central.
Tuesday: Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family at Howells-Dodge; Clarkson/Leigh at Lutheran High Northeast; Norfolk Catholic at Pierce; Santee at O’Neill St. Mary’s; Elkhorn Valley at Wausa.