Central Prairie not sneaking up on anyoneExactly one year ago, the Central Prairie boys’ basketball team elevated itself from near obscurity to a bonafide Region 3 contender in three short games. A Las Vegas bet on the Firebirds beating the then 7-0 and No. 6-ranked Carrington Cardinals in the championship of last year’s Stutsman County Tournament could have possibly made someone a millionaire. The odds were that long.
By: Michael Savaloja, The Jamestown Sun
Exactly one year ago, the Central Prairie boys’ basketball team elevated itself from near obscurity to a bonafide Region 3 contender in three short games.
A Las Vegas bet on the Firebirds beating the then 7-0 and No. 6-ranked Carrington Cardinals in the championship of last year’s Stutsman County Tournament could have possibly made someone a millionaire.
The odds were that long.
But the Firebirds’ confidence that week was palpable, and with a collective calmness that’s not often associated with a heavy underdog, Central Prairie took down both LaMoure and Kidder County, before knocking off the favored Cardinals 70-66 in overtime for the title.
Central Prairie went on to a memorable season following the tournament. The Birds won the District 5 championship and ended their season at 19-4 with a loss to the eventual state champion Linton Lions in the Region 3 title tilt.
Needless to say, the goals the Firebirds have set for themselves this season are high. But times have changed, and with those changes the team will need to develop a new type of mental toughness.
To put it simply, the word is out on what Central Prairie is capable of.
“This year is very much different. It’s been a learning process and as of yet we haven’t handled it very well,” Central Prairie coach Paul Erbele said. “We haven’t played with the same passion and intensity, and teams are prepared for us this year.”
Central Prairie is off to a good start this season, but not a great start when compared to last year’s standard. The Firebirds are 3-1, with a 50-48 loss to Litchville-Marion-Montpelier, and had a 20-point lead over Langdon at the Civic Center back in December vanish to just five points in the final period of play.
Defense has been an issue for the team early on, especially with the loss of key defensive cogs Michael Heinrich and Chris Fayville to graduation last spring.
“It’s a concern. We lost some speed and athleticism and we’re a little slower this year,” Erbele said. “Defensively, we’re going to have to pick it up and play as a team. What we’ve lacked this year is intensity.
“Even our offensive hasn’t meshed yet. Expectations were high, but it’s going to take a little more time to get where we want to be.”
The coach is more confident than hopeful that his team will finally pull all the pieces together when this year’s Stutsman County Tournament tips off today at the Civic Center — the same place where the team turned a corner last season.
“We’re looking forward to it, but we definitely feel like we haven’t played to our potential yet,” Erbele said. “Being the defending champs I think the guys will step up to the challenge. Suffering our first loss opened their eyes. This is a group of guys that don’t like to lose.”
The Firebirds do have a couple of things working in their favor. For starters, the team brings back all kinds of offensive firepower — even if it hasn’t all come together yet — and secondly, with the team’s rash of success last year at the Jamestown Civic Center it has almost turned into a home away from home for the Firebirds.
The team’s top returning threats, seniors Nic Moser and Brock Knodel, are no strangers to scoring points in Jamestown. Moser posted an average of 13.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game over the course of last season, while Knodel rang up averages of 12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.2 steals.
Rounding out the team’s starting five is senior guard Dacotah Dockter, junior forward Aaron Moser and sophomore shooting guard Eric Knodel.
The No. 3-seeded Firebirds will get their tourney started tonight at 7:30 p.m. against the No. 6-seeded Edgeley-Kulm Rebels. Central Prairie will be attempting to slow the speedy Rebels, especially senior point guard Alex Knudson.
Knudson averaged 15.0 points, 4.5 assists and 3.3 steals per game last season.
“Their biggest strength is team speed. They’re very quick,” Erbele said. “Conversely, we have the size advantage. I’m sure they’ll try to pack it in a zone against us and we’ll need to take care of the ball and step up and hit some shots.”
The coach is well aware that winning back-to-back Stutsman County titles will not be easy, especially with elephants like No. 5-ranked Carrington and No. 9-ranked Kidder County in the room.
But before the team can look forward, they must first meet the challenge immediately in front of them.
“There are a couple of top teams in the state playing in the tournament, and Ellendale and LaMoure are also very good teams,” Erbele said. “But you can never look past the first game. Edgeley-Kulm is a dangerous team if they come out and shoot the ball well and we’ll need to be ready.”
Sun sports writer Michael Savaloja can be reached at (701) 952-8461 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org