BY AARON PATTERSON firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — CATLIN — With six seniors listed on the roster, the Salt Fork Storm enter the 2014 postseason with high expectations. After all, they returned everyone from last year’s regional championship team.
But despite a squad filled with experience, they realize nothing is guaranteed.
Their predecessors found that out all-too easily when, with a strong core returning from the 2010 Class 1A state championship team, the Storm failed to make it out of their own regional in 2011.
Salt Fork is once again hosting a Class 1A regional in Catlin, and they don’t want to witness a similar outcome. They took the first step toward potentially repeating as back-to-back regional champs on Tuesday with a 57-40 win over the Armstrong-Potomac Trojans.
Salt Fork will face No. 2 seed Cissna Park in tonight’s second regional semifinal game scheduled to begin at 8 p.m.
“Armstrong has been giving a lot of teams fits, so we knew we had to take them as seriously as possible,” Salt Fork coach Andrew Johnson said. “I emphasized to them that it’s a one-game process. You’ve got to take care of business on the first one, and then move on to the next one.
“We’ve got a tough game tomorrow night with Cissna Park, but I was glad to see that we came out and established early. Definitely our defense in the first half, holding them to six points, allowed us to grow a lead, so that was good.”
The Trojans managed only three baskets in the first half, and the Storm held a 19-6 advantage at the break. But, Salt Fork found out firsthand why Johnson stressed to his team the importance of staying singularly focused and not looking too far into the future.
Though the Storm’s lead was never in jeopardy, Armstrong-Potomac lit up the scoreboard for 34 points in the second half including 23 in the final eight minutes.
Dentler Loschen, who scored a team high 11 points, hit three three-pointers in the final period and hit bookend treys around Shawn Johnson’s triple midway through the quarter.
“They gave us fits in this gym when we played them earlier in the year,” Johnson said. “(We) knew that if a team like Armstrong makes a lot of outside shots, they can get going. That’s something they did in the second half. They made me a little worried.”
Loschen and Johnson (nine points) weren’t the only ones hitting from the outside. Salt Fork senior guard Ross Learnard scored all 12 of his points from behind the arc.
Learnard’s open shots came as a result of crisp passes and solid rotation. It was a total team effort as was evidenced by the diversity on the scoreboard. Nine members of the Storm made their way into the scoring column including Max Stutsman and Noah Darr who each scored 11 points, Taylor Kirby (six points), Cole Taylor (five), Colton Fauver (four), Jordan Eakle (three), and Cole Sanford and Jordan Lamb who each scored two.
“It’s been a balanced attack,” Johnson said. “Maybe early in the season it was one or two guys. For the most part, all of our guys are really stepping up into their roles for us to be balanced. I feel like we are really adjusting well to be in that attack mode offensively, and really all five of them are working together.
“I feel like we were balanced tonight, and that was one of the keys. Not really one guy stood out as far as getting it done. We were able to have a balanced inside and outside attack.”
Salt Fork will be looking for another balanced attack tonight when they take on second-seeded Cissna Park in a semifinal game. The Storm have reached the regional title game in four of the last five seasons winning the title in three of the years. The only time they failed to play for a regional title during that span was in 2012 when they lost to St. Joseph-Ogden in the Class 2A playoffs.
“It’s going to be important,” Learnard said. “Everybody needs to be playing well. We’re ready, I think. We’re ready to go.
“It’s weird to think that it’s senior year and you have to win now,” he added. “This could be our last game if we lose. It’s going to be a big game tomorrow, so we’re going to come out ready to play.”