BY AARON PATTERSON
Of the 10 teams in the Vermilion Valley Conference, the Salt Fork Storm boys basketball team easily has the best overall record with only three losses. Yet with five games remaining in the regular season, they find themselves sitting in third place.
Though the ultimate goal is to have all aspects of their game fine-tuned for the upcoming regional, they know there is still a chance to secure a conference title.
All the Storm have to do is take care of business for the remainder of the season, which includes defeating the current first place Bismarck-Henning Blue Devils (8-0) and second place Westville Tigers (7-1). Those two contests will fittingly end the regular season for the Storm on February 12 15 respectively.
But standing in the way on Tuesday in an attempt to also stay in the conference race, and ruin Salt Fork’s chances of remaining in contention, were the Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers. Schlarman Academy battled its way back from down by as many as 18 in the fourth quarter, but Salt Fork refused to let the Hilltoppers spoil their shot at a VVC title and pulled out a 68-60 win.
“I keep reminding these kids that if you just keep winning, one game at a time, we’re going to find ourselves with a chance to play for the conference championship on that last night of the regular season,” Salt Fork coach Andrew Johnson said. “The kids have bought into it, they want it, and at the same time, too, it’s a big goal for us to have that conference championship. Pushing for that is a major goal that we have, and hopefully we can pursue that goal.”
The win was the third in a row for the Storm (20-3 overall, 7-1 in the VVC) since losing to Westville in the championship of the Vermilion County Tournament. Since then, Salt Fork has made sure to emphasize controlling the things they can control most in a game. That means, according to Johnson, executing and playing smart. And of course defense.
“I think we have to focus on our defense a lot,” Storm junior Ross Learnard said. “When we have our weaknesses, we just have to work on our defense, boxing out, getting boards. Our defense needs to always be there, and our offense will come. I’ve always been told that the best offense is a good defense.”
That especially held true for the Salt Fork point guard who finished the game with 22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and five steals. Teammate Max Stutsman scored 14 and had a game-high 15 rebounds with 13 on the defensive glass.
As a team, the Storm swiped a total of 13 steals, accounting for nearly all of Schlarman Academy’s 16 turnovers. Cole Taylor (12 points) had three steals, and Taylor Kirby and Stutsman had two each.
Learnard and Schlarman Academy guard Austin Calhoun battled in the opening moments of the game, and Calhoun’s defensive pressure won out until Learnard stepped up his game.
After being responsible for three early turnovers, Learnard regained his focus and got the Storm back on track.
“As a former point guard myself, I understand the pressures of, when they are in a full-court press and they are putting all of that pressure on you, it puts a lot of emphasis on you being able to handle that pressure, to handle the ball all the time and to be the main decision maker,” Johnson said. “I thought he did a good job, for the most part, of making those decisions that we needed for us to be successful tonight — handling that pressure, knowing when to take the ball to the basket, knowing when to pull the ball out and run our offense.
“The point guard has got to be a leader out there, and they’ve got to lead mostly by example by calming the rest of the team down and making sure that everything that we do offensively runs smoothly. I thought he did a good job, for the most part, handling all of those things.”
The Hilltoppers (15-9, 5-3) trailed by five at the end of the first quarter, and remained within striking distance at halftime in large part to Andrew Kelley’s first-half effort. Kelley scored 14 of his 21 points in the first half, and ultimately grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds. Calhoun led all scorers with 24 points and had four steals. Thirteen of his points came in the fourth quarter when the Hilltoppers reduced an 18-point deficit to only eight with 21 seconds remaining.
Schlarman Academy used a full-court press and forced Salt Fork into seven fourth-quarter turnovers, four of which came in the final two minutes of the game as the Hilltoppers went on an 11-3 run.
“They were playing pretty aggressive defense,” Learnard said. “We handled it OK for the most part, but sometimes we let it get to us. It was a good learning point for us tonight to just handle the ball better.”
The Hilltoppers’ schedule won’t get much easier as they are next scheduled to face Bismarck-Henning on Friday while Salt Fork takes on Oakwood.
Wins in their next three contests against Oakwood, Georgetown-Ridge Farm, and Chrisman will set up key contests at the end of the season against Bismarck-Henning and Westville. But though winning the VVC title is among the Storm’s list of goals, they realize even bigger goals loom beyond the regular season.
“We have it in the back of our mind, but really, we just want to play one game at a time,” Learnard said. “Really, at the end of the day, we just want to be ready for that regional when it comes around. It’s in the back of our minds, of course, but we really have to get ready for the postseason.”