After Oakland-Craig defeated Fillmore Central 68-60 for third place in Class C2 last season, Knight fans expressed a heartfelt thank you and said goodbye to five seniors, including the state's leading scorer, Dacey Nelson, and her 26.7 points per game.
The other seniors — Grace Pille, Natalia McNeill, Ashley Denton and Ellie Weitzenkamp — combined to average 14 more. Add it all together and that's about 41 points per game Oakland-Craig needed to replace in 2019-20.
But those who thought the Knights would be in rebuilding mode this season were not aware of three eighth graders on last year's junior high team who have made a splash on the varsity squad this winter as freshmen.
Cheney Nelson (11), Sydney Guzinski (10) and Sadie Nelson (6) have combined to average 27 points per game for the Knights through their first 13 games.
"It's nice to have those extra scorers; it really took the pressure off Kennedy," Oakland-Craig coach Joe Anderson said.
The Knights' leading scorer, senior Kennedy Benne, is averaging 19 points per contest.
"People, early in the year, tried to take her away and do some different things, but they found out that didn't work real well because we have other girls that can score," Anderson said.
Anderson, who led the school to a Class C2 state football championship in the fall, said he wasn't surprised the trio of ninth graders would have early varsity success.
"I've watched them through junior high, and they play all summer long against some elite competition," he said. "So, walking on to our varsity court, they just fit really well, right into our system and our really aggressive man-to-man defense and we want to push the tempo on offense, and that's what they did all summer long."
If those last names — Nelson and Guzinski — sound familiar, they should. The Nelsons are Dacey's twin sisters, and Guzinski is the sister of Mya, the team's senior point guard.
The Nelsons' father, Merritt, was a longtime Oakland-Craig coach before taking an administrative position at Midland University while the Guzinskis' dad, Scott, is an assistant for the Knights' girls team and a former head coach at Tekamah-Herman.
"All of those girls have been coming to basketball practice since they were babies," Anderson said. "They've had a ball in their hand for a long time."
While the Knights have been able to score points, Anderson said the team's biggest improvement has been on the defensive end. "We've got a bunch of athletic kids that fly around, and our defense has created a lot of offense for us."
But the biggest reasons for the team's success, according to Anderson, have been the aforementioned Benne and Guzinski.
"We've had great leadership from those two all summer long and throughout the season," Anderson said. "They're just both so unselfish, and they welcomed these younger girls onto our team and really haven't missed a beat."
Besides scoring 19 points, Benne has averaged six steals and three assists through the first 13 games. "She's really getting it done for us on both ends," Anderson said.
Meanwhile, Guzinski runs the offense and has done a great job of taking care of the basketball. "She only averages about three points per game, but her assist-to-turnover ratio this year is 4 to 1, which is outstanding for a high school basketball player," Anderson said.
"She has just barely over one turnover a game for a team like us that really pushes the ball and plays at a high tempo. She's one of the big reasons we're able to do some of the things that we do."
Three juniors round out the Oakland-Craig rotation. Jeanina Blahak and Makenna Pearson are both 6 feet tall and alternate at the post.
"They do a lot of the dirty work, a lot of the rebounding and defensive things to allow us to pressure up top," Anderson said.
"Together, they're averaging 11 points and 11 rebounds. So, we're getting some productivity from that spot. Against Elmwood-Murdock (on Saturday), they had to guard a 6-5 girl and they held her to one point."
Anderson said the other junior, guard Edie Anderson, is scrappy and brings a great defensive presence to the orange and white.
The Knights have won their first 13 games and are preparing for a brutal stretch run, but Anderson is looking forward to it.
"We don't play another team the rest of the year with a losing record (except possibly in the early rounds of the East Husker Conference tournament)," Anderson said.
"We go BRLD, who's 12-0, and then we have Tekamah's, who's 8-3, and then we have North Bend, who's undefeated, and the very next night, we have the No. 8 team in Class B. We play Norris down at Creighton (University). And the following Tuesday, we get (11-1) Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family. It's going to be fun and will really test us and see where we're at as a team."
Although he's pleased to be 13-0 in mid-January, Anderson said he'd like to see his team improve both its outside and free-throw shooting.
"Those are two things that can always get better," he said. "You're going to see a lot of close games here in the next month, and you've got to be able to make your free throws and hit open shots down the stretch."
The top six spots on the Class C ratings chart remain unchanged from last week. The three East Husker teams — North Bend Central, Oakland-Craig and Bancroft-Rosalie/Lyons-Decatur — are all still undefeated, but that won't be the case a week from now. Oakland-Craig is scheduled to square off with BRLD on Friday in Lyons.
All three teams picked up wins last week, none more impressive than BRLD's 67-33 thumping of West Point-Beemer.
No. 4 Guardian Angels Central Catholic is the highest ranked of four Mid-State Conference teams on this week's chart. The Bluejays' résumé includes wins over Crofton, Norfolk Catholic and Winnebago.
Crofton is No. 5. The Warriors earned an impressive 11-point victory at Ponca last week, then defeated Sioux City East — which would be a Class A team in Nebraska — at the CNOS Classic in Sioux City. The Warriors then ended the week the next night at the Dakota State Classic with a loss to a South Dakota juggernaut, 8-0 Lennox.
More importantly, the Warriors are back to full strength and should have the firepower be among the top teams in both the area and the state.
Ponca remains sixth. The Indians bounced back after the loss to Crofton by defeating 4-4 Dakota Valley of North Sioux City, South Dakota.
Battle Creek enters the ratings for the first time this season at No. 7. The Bravettes first defeated North Central on the road and then avenged an earlier defeat by topping Norfolk Catholic at home.
Despite that loss, Norfolk Catholic moves in at No. 8. The Knights picked up a signature win over on Tuesday over Allison Weidner and Humphrey St. Francis.
Both Summerland and West Point-Beemer dropped out of the ratings after suffering losses last week and, along with O'Neill, head the list of honorably mentioned, as well as Ainsworth, Boone Central, Boyd County, Clarkson/Leigh, North Central, Pierce, Tekamah-Herman, Valentine, Wakefield/Allen and Winnebago.
Chambers/Wheeler Central continues to be the clear No. 1 in Class D. The Renegades are the only remaining area unbeaten among Class D1 and D2 sides in Northeast and North Central Nebraska.
CWC raised eyebrows Saturday. It was no surprise that the Renegades picked up a road win over Class C1 and 6-4 Ord. But the 33-point margin (54-21) was even more than defending Class C2 state champion Hastings St. Cecilia's. The Hawekettes defeated the Chanticleers by 29 points (60-31) in December.
Humphrey St. Francis' loss to Norfolk Catholic knocked the Flyers down a peg to No. 3 while Humphrey/Lindsay Holy moves up to second. The Bulldogs have lost just once this year — to Class C No. 1 North Bend Central — and last week added a victory over Columbus Scotus to their résumé.
No. 4 Wynot — which has a win over Class B York — picked up two more victories last week to win the Hartington-Newcastle post-holiday tournament.
Pender is still fifth. The Pendragons likely faced the toughest Class D1 schedule in the state. Their six losses are to Class C No. 1 North Bend Central, No. 2 Oakland-Craig, No. 3 BRLD, Class D No. 2 Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family, No. 4 Wynot and defending Class C2 state champion Hastings St. Cecilia.
Hartington Cedar Catholic remains in the No. 6 spot after a victory over Laurel-Concord-Coleridge while Elkhorn Valley holds onto the seventh spot.
Laurel-Concord-Coleridge enters at No. 8 after coming up short in close games against Cedar Catholic and Winnebago.
NOTE TO COACHES AND ACTIVITIES DIRECTORS
Coaches and activities directors, we need your help. In our effort to provide Northeast and North Central Nebraska high school basketball players with the recognition they deserve, we ask that after each of your games (home, away or neutral), you provide the final score, score by quarters and the number of points scored by the players on your team to the Daily News no later than 8 a.m. on the day following the game. We would prefer it the night before.
Many coaches and administrators do a great job of getting us this important information and to you, we say, "Thank you very much and keep up the good work!" If you haven't done so or have only done so occasionally, we kindly ask that you begin following your team's next game.
The Daily News staff retrieves the information in several ways: via MaxPreps, email, fax or over the phone. Our email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org, fax: 402-644-2080 and phone: 402-371-1020 or toll-free, 877-371-1020; choose the sports option.
At a minimum, we need the final score, score by quarters and the number of points scored by each member of your team. Thank you in advance for your help!