Less than ideal start ends in dream come true in win over St. Cloud Apollo
BY DAVE PEDERSEN
SUN PRESS NEWSPAPERS
The 66-56 victory over St. Cloud Apollo Thursday secured Delano’s first trip to the state boys basketball tournament in 20 years. In fact, there may have been some rub off of fortune when the 1993 team was honored at a recent Tiger game.
The state tourney started Wednesday, March 20 with Delano facing St. Paul Johnson in Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota. The winner faces either top seed and defending state champ DeLaSalle (27-1) or Sartell-St. Stephen (17-12) at noon Thursday, March 21 at the Target Center. The title game is 6 p.m. Saturday, March 23 at Target Center.
To be a good team every player on the team has to be good and contribute in some way. That’s the formula that worked for Delano when winning the Class 3A, Section 5 boys basketball championship at St. Cloud State.
Four of the six Tiger starters scored in double figures against Apollo and the other, leading scorer Zach Checkal, found other ways to contribute when he shot was not falling.
His one basket was a key one with three minutes to play in the game when Apollo had narrowed the lead to two points. The senior guard also had 11 rebounds, five assists, two steals, four points and was the primary ball handler.
“Everybody has bad games when your shot is not falling,” said Checkal after the celebration. “You just have to keep doing the little things and hustle. Eventually, the game is going to come to you.”
Checkal said going to state feels like never before. He adds, “You work so hard, and when the buzzer finally rings, it all hits you. It is an unreal feeling.”
Junior guard Toby Hanson knows what Checkal was feeling after going scoreless in the first half against Apollo. He suffered a similar fate in last year’s section title game defeat when he was the leading scorer and his shots would not drop.
“I’ve been waiting a whole year and working hard ever since to get back to this point,” said Hanson. “It feels good that all the hard work we put in during the season sure pays off now. We’re excited and we want to keep things going. We will enjoy this one for a day then get back to work.”
Hanson scored 14 points, going 3 for 6 from 3-point range. For the season he averaged 16.4, a fraction behind Checkal at 16.5.
Coach Terry Techam said Hanson played well in the game and on the season. “He always was a scorer, but this year he stepped up the other ways he contributes in a more diversified game.”
It was not an ideal start for Delano, getting down 9-2. The Tigers responded with a 15-1 run to lead 17-10. Hanson said the players were not worried when the team fell behind at the start.
“We looked each other in the eye and said let’s do this, we’re a better team than this,” adds Hanson. “We knew we will get it going. We battled all game long and finally took control at the end.”
Senior Dalton Pulis led the early Delano charge, netting two straight 3-point shots, followed by three free throws when fouled attempting a long shot.
Pulis powered the offense with 21 points and grabbed five rebounds. He was 4 of 9 from 3-point range and 7 of 8 from the free throw line. Despite being the tallest Tiger at 6-foot-7, “I have been a long range shooter all my life.”
Techam said a strength of Pulis as a good perimeter shooter helps to stretch the opposing defense, that has to guard with a bigger player or Pulis will burn them inside.
Delano led 30-23 at the half and started the second half with a steal and slam dunk by Hanson. The Tigers built a 13-point lead before Apollo started to mount a comeback, cutting the margin to 46-44 with seven minutes to play.
It was Adam Schleper’s turn to contribute, hitting a big 3-point shot and a layup to stretch Delano’s lead. The senior guard finished with 15 points, a team high eight assists, four rebounds and played tough on defense.
“Adam played excellent,” adds Techam. “It could be the best game he ever played in his high school career.”
Delano had three players with four fouls down the stretch when another Apollo run cut the lead to 54-52.
“I was thinking if Toby fouled out it would be huge,” said Pulis about Apollo’s comeback. “During a time out we said to stay focused and make a stop on defense.”
Checkal said the foul trouble “is in the back of your head. You got to play hard and whatever happens, happens. You can’t let that bother you.”
Techam said he had seen Apollo play numerous times and knew it plays hard all the time and was not going to quit.
“St. Cloud’s strategy was to rotate 10 players in and out to wear us down,” said Techam. “When they pressed and got the lead to two points, we said to keep attacking the basket and not be happy with just getting the ball over the half court line.”
Delano was able to work the ball inside to junior Damon Longstreet, who scored on two layups in the last two minutes and finished with 12 points and seven rebounds.
Delano switched from man to man to more of a zone defense at the end to protect players in foul trouble. The main reserve was senior Zach Muckenhirn, who Techam calls a smart player able to work at multiple positions.
Techam said this Delano team has great chemistry. Players were not only willing to practice before school, but enjoyed hanging out together.
The state tourney field is tough with defending champ DeLaSalle as a big time favorite and Austin coming in undefeated. Techam adds, “At this time we believe we can play with most anybody because we worked our tails off.”
State tourney notes
Two Tiger assistant coaches will join sons at the state tourney. Jamie Longstreet is Damon’s father and Joe Schleper is Adam’s dad.
“It is very special to have my son be part of a state tourney team,” said Joe Schleper “I’ve coached the current seniors since they were in elementary school, so I’m extremely happy for them.”
Schleper also served as the fourth grade teacher for most of the Tiger varsity players.
“At home we try to keep a pretty even keel through the ups and downs of a long season,” adds Joe. “Adam and I have talked about controlling what you can control, such as always playing your hardest, being a good teammate and enjoying the moment.”
Delano’s section title roster includes senior Arick Neisen, juniors Seth Norling and Seth MacLeod, sophomore Sean Campbell and ninth-grader Matt Kreklow. Jason Monke is in his third year as an assistant coach.
Delano takes a 26-3 record to state. The Tigers beat Becker 96-45 to open the playoffs, before winning over Orono 61-46.
DeLaSalle is making its second consecutive and 18th overall state appearance. The team is in the hunt for a seventh title. Junior Reid Travis paces the Islanders with 24.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.
St. Paul Johnson entered the tourney at 21-7, making its fifth consecutive and 11th overall appearance. The team that placed third last year and won the title in 2010 averages 81.4 points and 35.3 rebounds per game.
In the other bracket, The Blake School (22-7) opened against Austin (28-0). Blake is paced by senior Blaine Crawford with 16.1 points per game and junior JR Bascom at 15.1. Austin is making its second consecutive and 27th overall appearance.
Grand Rapids (20-9) went against Marshall (27-2) in the first round. GR placed fourth at state last year. Sophomore Alex Illikainen averages 27.0 points and 15.2 rebounds per game.