By Brady Ambrose
The Caledonia boys basketball team will be making their first trip to the MSHSL state tournament since 1997 this week.
The way they advanced to the Class AA quarterfinals this Wednesday night was a little different than the path they had taken so far on their tournament run. In their first three playoff wins, Caledonia had averaged 95 points per game in wins over Lewiston-Altura, Lake City and P-E-M, but on Thursday night the Warriors used an in-your-face defense to shut down the Byron Bears 59-44 to continue their magical run to the Target Center.
“Our offense has been so good all year, it puts pressure on the other team like Byron where they had to take shots they didn’t want to,” head coach Josh Diersen said.
Clinging to a 42-37 lead with 8:45 left in the game, the Warriors held the Bears to just seven points – three baskets – the rest of the way as they won the Class 1AA section championship for the first time in 14 seasons.
Byron entered the game having scored less than 50 points per contest just twice the whole season as they racked up a 22-8 record, but against the Warriors the Bears could muster only 44 points on 19-58 shooting (33 percent) from the floor and managed to get to the free throw line just two times the entire game. Caledonia, on the other hand, made 41 of 51 attempts from the line in their win over P-E-M and made 17 of 18 against the Bears.
“It’s huge for Caledonia. We have so many young kids invested in basketball right now; it’s great for the program and great to see what these guys can do,” Diersen said. The coach has guided the Warriors to an impressive 27-2 record this season. “When it was close, Byron was doing what they wanted – it did come down to defense and rebounding. We decided to stretch it out and made them come out and get us, and we made layups and free throws.”
Diersen admitted that slowing the game down was tough for his team, “It’s hard. They want to attack all the time, but there was a lot of traffic in there. We made our free throws and finished the game.”
The tempo was anything but normal for the Warriors in the early going. The Bears led 13-10 on a 3-pointer from Lance Mortland at the 8:30 mark, but Owen King sank a trey for the Warriors a minute later to tie the game. Colton Lampert’s bucket gave Caledonia a 17-13 lead, and Caledonia began a 13-6 run capped by Austin Bauer’s basket that gave Caledonia a 26-19 lead with 2:44 left in the first half.
Byron’s Buster Meyer then hit a 3-pointer and the Bears closed the gap to 26-22. “We extended the zone a little farther than we normally do and it gave them same lanes to drive in, so they got a couple layups,” Diersen said. “In the first half we didn’t zip the ball around like we normally do and they hit some shots.”
Hanging on to a 26-22 lead at the break, the Warriors then found themselves in a dogfight to start the second half. Joe Smith hit a 3-pointer to get the Bears within a basket at 31-29 less than three minutes into the half, and Byron tied the game on their next possession on a basket from Evan Richardson that forced Diersen to call a time out with the score knotted at 31 all.
Out of the break the Warriors regained the lead on a 3 from Bauer and then went up by six when Josh Nord hit another trey to give Caledonia a 37-31 lead with 12:59 left to play. But the Bears fought back again, getting within a basket with 10 minutes to play, when Mortland hit another long three-pointer to cut Caledonia’s lead to 39-37.
Eighth-grader Owen King then hit a huge basket for the Warriors when he hit his second 3-pointer of the game to give the Warriors a 42-37 lead and provided a spark for Caledonia. Josh Nord made four straight free throws to extend the lead to double-digits at 50-39, and then Caledonia began to pull away.
Byron senior Buster Meyer hit another 3 for the Bears to cut the lead to 50-42 with 3:23 left, but Caledonia went on a 9-2 run to end the game. Joe Smith scored Byron’s final points of the game with 1:21 left for a 54-44 Caledonia lead, and Colton Lampert and Kyle Sorenson’s free throws put the finishing touches on the Warriors’ section championship at 59-44. “They’re a good team, give them credit,” Diersen said. “We slowed things down at the end, brought it out and we got layups and free throws. It’s fun to watch these guys play: They listen, they game plan well, and they want it.”
Josh Nord led Caledonia with 13 points, eight rebounds, three assists and a steal, while Austin Bauer and Kyle Sorenson added 10 points each in the win. “We’re going to let them enjoy this a little bit and then get back in the gym and get after it. You will see us push the tempo up there, I guarantee that.”
Caledonia’s first game at the state tournament will be Wednesday night at 8 p.m. when they take on St. Paul Academy and Summit School at the Target Center. The Spartans (20-8) are the #5 seed, while the Warriors were given the #4 seed at Saturday’s seeding meeting.
CALEDONIA 59, BYRON 44
Caledonia 26 33 – 59
Byron 22 22 – 44
BYRON: Kip Knutson 8, Buster Meyer 8, Joe Smith 12, Evan Richardson 2, Lance Mortland 8, Michael Carl 6.
CALEDONIA: Seth Twite 5, Josh Nord 13, Owen King 6, Colton Lampert 9, Kyle Sorenson 12, Austin Bauer 10, West Spier 4.
The Boys Basketball Booster Club is sponsoring charter buses to the state basketball game at the Target Center in Minneapolis on Wednesday, March 12 at 8 p.m. The cost is $25 per person (does not include the cost of the ticket). Buses will begin loading at 3:45 p.m. and departing at 4 p.m. from the middle school/high school parking lot. The deadline for signing up for the charter bus is 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 11. Call 725-8883 or stop in at SMOOTHTOE in Caledonia to sign up for the bus.