BY AARON PATTERSON
Each time the Salt Fork Storm step onto the court, they play for a championship. It’s a mindset first year head coach Andrew Johnson has instilled in his players, not only stressing the weight placed on every game, but keeping in mind their ultimate goal. The Storm have dropped only two games all season against St. Joseph-Ogden and Westville, and so far have put themselves in a position to not only stay at the top of the Vermilion Valley Conference standings, but also keep their goals within reach.
In December, the Storm won the BSN Classic title, and after defeating the Oakwood Comets 42-34 in Thursday’s Vermilion County Tournament contest, they will have an opportunity to win another championship. The win keeps Salt Fork’s tournament record perfect, and sets up a rematch against Westville in Saturday’s 8 p.m. title game.
“I keep saying to the kids that what our goal should be all the time is to continue to play for championships and to put yourself in that position,” Johnson said. “Every single time that we come out onto the floor, we want to play for championships. We’ve had some close games that have gone our way and we are fortunate to be able to play for the championship tomorrow night.”
Oakwood and Salt Fork had just met in a conference game on January 8, and though Salt Fork won by a decisive nine points, Oakwood gained plenty of confidence during the game. It showed as the Comets held a 27-23 lead with less than 20 seconds to play in the third quarter. But the Storm took advantage of 10 Oakwood turnovers in the fourth quarter, and went on a 10-2 run to take and extend their lead.
“I felt first of all, defensively getting stops (helped in the comeback),” Johnson said. “That kind of gave us some confidence offensively. We had those consistent stops. Again, in a dogfight type of game, when you get those consistent stops it gives you a little confidence on the offensive end, and I felt like we attacked the basket a little bit better.”
Salt Fork junior guard Ross Learnard scored the first five points of the run and scored 10 of his team-high 15 points in the second half. While the run aided in the Storm’s win, it was in response to an early third quarter defensive effort by the Comets that attempted to slow the Storm’s offense.
The plan worked in the opening moments of the second half when Salt Fork held its first possession for one minute, 10 seconds and failed to score. But the Storm increased its defensive pressure, and the Comets fell into the same costly trap that, according to coach Doug Robinson, has cost them games this season.
“We started turning the ball over,” Robinson said. “That’s been our curse all season long. A couple of shots didn’t fall. They were able to score off of our mistakes. It was just the little things.
“We have done a good job of taking better care of the ball, but every turnover that we have is an extra possession for them. We try to preach taking care of the ball and setting screens for each other, and good, hard dribbles instead of soft dribbles. We’re getting there slowly and surely, but tonight it cost us a game.”
While turnovers might have cost them the game, Oakwood’s Kyle Elliott did everything he could offensively to keep them in the game. Elliott finished with a game-high 19 points aided by five threes. Parker Lee also scored 11 for Oakwood and had five rebounds.
The Comets (4-10) will take on Bismarck-Henning at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in an attempt to salvage a third place finish. Bismarck-Henning has already defeated Oakwood twice this season, but Robinson is optimistic about his team’s progress.
“I told them in the locker room that we’ve been this team for awhile that’s a team that we believe we can play with everybody in the conference,” Robinson said. “Now we’re starting to show that we can play with everybody in the conference. It’s a new team with a lot of confidence.
“We’re starting to show that we can play with any team in the conference,” he continued. “I think the next step is showing that we can beat any team in the conference, so we’re going to have to start doing that next time.”
Max Stutsman finished with 10 points and eight rebounds for Salt Fork, and Alec Dutton scored eight and pulled down six rebounds.
The Storm (15-2) will be playing for their fourth title in the last five years. Though many on this year’s team have participated on a Vermilion County Tournament championship team, Saturday’s game will be a whole new experience.
“I’m pretty excited,” Learnard said. “My freshman year I was able to get one, pretty much sitting on the bench being a spectator. It’s still pretty cool, but I’m excited to get to play in one and actually be a part of it.”