Nick Benes

Regarded as one of the top teams in the Mid-State Conference coming into the season, it was rather surprising to see Wayne mired in a four-game losing skid at the outset.

Things have certainly changed since then.

The Blue Devils have won all but one game, with the exclamation point Tuesday when Wayne held a potent Laurel-Concord-Coleridge offense to just 19 points in the first three quarters of a 53-35 win. It was the second time this season that the Blue Devils have beaten the Bears, including the Great Northeast Nebraska Shootout over the holiday break at Wayne State College.

“The kids really bought into the game plan and executed it pretty well. … There were a whole lot of things that went into that,” Wayne coach Rob Sweetland said about Tuesday's win.

In particular, Wayne shut down LCC senior Noah Schutte, who scored 40 points against Hartington Cedar Catholic on Thursday. The Blue Devils held Schutte to 4 of 13 shooting, and he scored seven of his 15 points from the free-throw line as the Bears finished 27% (11 of 41) from the field as a team.

“That's where your focus has to start,” Sweetland said of Schutte. “We wanted to force him into a certain direction and give help early, and then just make sure we were rotating to take away the easy passes, especially the backside post and if they had a shooter in the corner, pop off and help on that also.”

It's one thing to have that kind of a defensive plan. It's quite another, however, to have the athletes to execute it. With plenty of contributors standing 6 feet or taller, Wayne has those players.

“The main thing is we have guys who have some length and some quickness who can also deny him the ball a little bit and front him in the post,” Sweetland said. “He's a great player, and he still got 15 points against us.”

Tuesday was the first of two big-time home games in a span of three days: No. 2-ranked and defending Class C1 runner-up North Bend Central visits on Thursday. So, for as much as one may way be tempted to lose focus, an even bigger test awaits.

“There's a reason they're No. 2 and undefeated,” Sweetland said. “Obviously, they have a lot of confidence after the runner-up finish last year. It's a great opportunity for us.”

Tuesday's outing was a microcosm of what's changed for the Blue Devils. The result of those changes is Wayne vaulting to No. 4 in this week's Class C ratings.

“I think they just paid more attention to detail, especially with the opponent,” Sweetland said. “Early on, we were letting the other team's best player beat us. We weren't playing together offensively or defensively.

“The good thing is, when you start 0-4 and when you have a lot of seniors on the team, they decided that they needed to pay more attention and try to buy into the defensive end and turn things around.”

Yes, the Blue Devils have that 0-4 start. But Tuesday's win over LCC — which beat previous fourth-ranked Hartington Cedar Catholic by 18 — and a win over previously sixth-ranked Norfolk Catholic factor heavily in analyzing the team's improvement since December, when it lost to teams such as Battle Creek, Ponca and Cedar Catholic.

Wayne's upward trajectory has been built on defense, Sweetland said, starting with a 20-8 advantage in the third quarter of a 71-48 victory against Columbus Lakeview on Dec. 14, its first win of the season.

“That was a key. We just needed to start executing on defense and taking away the other team's best player,” he said. “We started doing that against Lakeview versus the (Thunder) Pilakowski kid. He got us in the first half, and at halftime, I made the point that this is what's been beating us, and the kids came out in the second half and shut him down. That carried us to a win in that game.”

Wayne is just another one of what seems like an abundance of quality Mid-State Conference teams this season. Five of the nine teams have winning records, and Norfolk Catholic (5-6) — one of Wayne's victims during its current streak — was ranked just last week.

“The bottom teams, even, can put a scare in you if you don't come to play on both sides of the ball and fall asleep on any given opponent,” Sweetland said. “There can be an upset on any night.”

One season after the league appeared to be in a down cycle, the overall play seems to be trending upward. Sweetland offered one reason why that appears to be the case.

“I just think there is really good coaching. The coaches get the kids prepared. They spend the time with them in the summers on skill development, and I think it pays off when the season comes around,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for all of the coaches in the conference. They're going to try to take away your strengths, and you've got to try to take away theirs.”

The Blue Devils are led by a group of seniors — Josh Lutt, Cody Rogers, Tyrus Eischeid, Trevor DeBoer and Shea Sweetland — who have “played together since fourth grade,” coach Sweetland said. Wayne has been able to do what it has this season despite the subtraction of one key contributor, Kallan Herman, who is now playing at Norfolk High.

“It was an opportunity for those guys who maybe weren't going to play as much if he was here, to take on a role,” Sweetland said. “He's very skilled offensively and a really good kid. He was a good kid to coach. It's tough losing a player like that, but the other kids have stepped up.”

Ratings recap

There are a number of teams in contention for the final spot in Class C, including Logan View/Scribner-Snyder (9-3), Lutheran High Northeast (8-4), Wisner-Pilger (7-4) and, after watching them last week, I’d even throw Creighton (8-3) in there as a contender, although the Bulldogs have played mostly a Class D schedule. Right now, I believe the Eagles have the best overall body of work and have improved.

The Class D ratings did not change.

Bayer bounces back

A special shout-out to Howells-Dodge sophomore RJ Bayer. Saying that his last week was emotional doesn’t begin to describe it.

His father, Ryan, died unexpectedly due to a rare form of brain cancer. RJ’s first game back with the Jaguars on Saturday was simply memorable: A career-high 32 points, setting the school record for most points in a game by a sophomore, as Howells-Dodge dismantled Plainview 72-38.

Reminder to coaches

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 that they deserve, we ask that, after each of your games (home, away, or neutral), you provide the final score, scoring 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 to 402-644-2080 or over the phone to 402-371-1020 or toll-free, 877-371-1020, and choose the sports option.

At a minimum, we need the final score, scoring by quarters and the number of points scored by each member of your team. Thank you in advance for your help.

In other news

WAYNE — An explosive first half led the Wayne State women to a 78-73 Northern Sun Conference win over Minnesota State University-Moorhead at Rice Auditorium here on Friday evening.

WAYNE — The Wayne State men's basketball team wasted a first-half comeback against Minnesota State University-Moorhead as the Dragons rebounded in the second 20 minutes to finish off an 82-71 win over the Wildcats here at Rice Auditorium Friday evening.

Rats can drive cars. Not your car or my car. (Their legs really wouldn’t reach the pedals, after all.) Rather, researchers have created tiny cars just for their lab rats and certain experiments and have taught the little critters how to drive.