Prep boys basketball: Ellsworth reloads with discipline
The 2016-2017 Ellsworth boys basketball season came to an end in the team's WIAA regional game against the Hayward Hurricanes.
"We were up with three minutes left," head coach Tim Dahl said. "We could have won, should have won."
The Hayward game was one of the Panthers' 10 2016-2017 season losses that the team believes could have ended in Ellsworth's favor.
Dahl also recalled the team's second matchup against Osceola last year.
After the first half of the conference game, the Panthers were down by 17 points to the Chieftains.
"Nothing was going right," Dahl said.
But the Panthers turned it around in the second half and outscored Osceola 37-21, and were up by one point with nine seconds left. However, their comeback was overshadowed by a Osceola buzzer beater that gave the Chieftains the final 63-62 win.
"That game showed the mentality of this group," Dahl said. "The fortitude that these guys showed ... They could have packed it in and we could have just gotten on the bus and came home, but they didn't do that. They didn't quit."
"Last year there were a lot of games that were close. They were battles and just came down to those last few minutes," senior co-captain Drake Flom said. "They were games that we should have had, but they just didn't go our way. They weren't complete blowouts. They were always competitive."
"We have to close out games better," junior Logan Benson added.
"That's what a lot of basketball is — just having to finish all games," Flom said. "A lot of games are going to be close, but it's all about finishing them."
The Panthers "finished" 14 of their 24 games last season leading to a 14-10 record, which was a huge improvement compared to their 8-13 2015-2016 season record.
But the Panthers aren't satisfied with this improvement. They're hungry to be the best and make a name for Ellsworth basketball.
The Panthers graduated nine seniors after the 2016-2017 season, and on paper, it may look like a rebuilding year for Ellsworth.
Dahl disagrees. Instead, he believes his team is "reloading."
"We were more of a grinder team last year," Dahl said. "This year I think we're going to push the envelope, and we have the players who can do that."
Yes, the Panthers did lose nine seniors, but they return their three stat leaders: Flom, Benson and senior Alex Motley.
In his junior year, Motley averaged 16.9 points and 3.4 assists per game. Flom put up numbers like 15.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, and Benson was a leader in all three major categories with 14 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game.
Dahl referred to Motley, Flom and Benson as the team's "building blocks" who've helped lay the foundation for Ellsworth basketball.
The Panthers' big three will be joined by two role players whose play and leadership will help determine how successful their team will be this year.
Erik Lange, a 5'9" junior guard who saw some varsity time last year, will be a primary ball handler for the Panthers this year.
"Erik is going to fill a big role for us this year," Dahl said.
Zach Nugent, Flom's senior co-captain, will be the team's vocal leader.
"Zach showed really good leadership on junior varsity last year, and always puts his team first," Dahl said. "He has a great attitude and is well-respected by his teammates."
The Panthers have the talent, experience and leadership that they'll need to surpass last year's 14 wins, but what will it take for them to compete with the best?
Ellsworth flaunted their team's swagger last year, and although they want to continue to play with confidence this year, they know there's room for a little humility in their game.
"It's good to a point," Motley said about playing with swagger. But the senior guard said that when that swagger gets out of hand, "Sometimes we think we're bigger than ourselves then we start talking to the refs and talking back to our coaches and it ends up hurting us.
"I still think I'm the best player on the court every time I step onto the court," Motley said, "but you can't think that you're too good to be at this level of basketball. You've just got to keep it all inside and let your play do the talking."
Motley recalled a lesson that his co-head football coach Jason Janke shared with him.
"Janke says you have to have an inner arrogance inside and you have to think that you're way better than anyone else, but you can't let anyone else know that you think that," Motley said.
Motley and the rest of the team will have to find an appropriate balance of swagger and discipline to accomplish their team goals of knocking off Prescott, the four-year Middle Border Conference champions, and ultimately making it to the state tournament.
With the five leaders' evident love for the game of basketball, varsity experience and focus on closing games in the upcoming season, there aren't many barriers that will be able to stand in the way of these matured players — not even their own egos.
Ellsworth will begin practice on Monday, Nov. 13 and will face Colfax at home in their first game of the season on Tuesday, Nov. 21.