BY AARON PATTERSON
Nothing is guaranteed in sports, even at the high school level. Just when things begin to look predictable, the only certainty is to expect the unexpected.
The Vermilion Valley Conference boys title race has seen numerous shake-ups during the final stretch with the Chrisman Cardinals playing spoiler, first defeating the Salt Fork Storm, and most recently knocking off the Westville Tigers on Tuesday.
The loss was the second in the conference for both teams, potentially eliminating each from title contention. That is, however, until Tuesday when the Class 1A eighth-ranked Storm responded to the loss with a dominant 62-36 win over the reigning VVC champs, the Bismarck-Henning Blue Devils.
“It was disappointing,” Salt Fork coach Andrew Johnson said of the loss to Chrisman. “We didn’t think coming into that game that that would be the scenario. I give Chrisman a lot of credit. They played hard, they executed well, and we did not perform to the highest of our ability last Friday night.
“I liked our response tonight. I thought our kids came out with a lot of energy, a lot of intensity that allowed us to push forward and get a nice victory tonight.”
It was the first conference loss for the Blue Devils (23-6 overall, 11-1 in the VVC) since the 2010-2011 season, and ends a 25-game VVC winning streak.
Despite the loss, Bismarck-Henning clinched at least a share of the conference title for the second consecutive year, but this will be the first time in over six seasons that there will not be an undefeated VVC champion.
The Blue Devils entered the contest at a disadvantage with team leader and senior point guard Austin Toler out with injury.
“It hurts, obviously losing quite a few of his points, you’re losing his defense, you’re losing his ball handling, but most importantly, you’re losing leadership from someone that’s been taking care of the ball all year like that,” Bismarck-Henning interim head coach Jon Clapp said. “That’s a major factor in a game. If you get down a little bit and he’s out there, he’s got that calming influence where he kind of slows the game down and gets guys in the position they need to be. We kind of lost our cool a little bit. We got down and we just couldn’t come back from it tonight. They’re a good ball club.”
The Storm gave the Blue Devils little hope of keeping their conference record clean when they used a 15-2 run to go up 25-12 at halftime.
Alec Dutton seemingly had his way on offense scoring 10 of his 20 points in the second quarter. He missed only two shots in the frame, and the only other member of the Storm to score in the final eight minutes of the half was Cole Taylor.
But just when Dutton got hot, Ross Learnard stepped up his game in the third quarter where he scored 12 of his game-high 21 points, all on jump shots and a free throw. The junior guard missed only one shot during the quarter and helped Salt Fork extend its lead to 18 points.
“I definitely had the hot hand, so I just took advantage of it and kept shooting,” Learnard said. “We just all played well. It’s a credit to everyone. The bench players were getting us up, we were playing good defense. On offense we were executing against their zone, our full court defense was causing turnovers. Everything (was working).”
Salt Fork’s biggest lead was 28 points, and only one Blue Devil reached double figures. Austin Reinken scored 15 points and had five rebounds while Wilde Garowski, who got into foul trouble early, finished with eight points and six rebounds.
Max Stutsman also reached double figures for the Storm (22-4) with 13 points and had eight rebounds.
“I’m disappointed with the margin of victory,” Clapp said. “I thought we still should have been able to play a lot better against them. We just got down, started forcing some shots. We weren’t making anything, and Learnard just went nuts on us for a little while. We couldn’t stop him.”
Bismarck-Henning shot 29 percent from the field while Salt Fork shot 52 percent, and 82 percent from the free throw line.
The Blue Devils host Armstrong-Potomac on Friday in the regular season finale. The Trojans (1-25) picked up their first win of season Tuesday with a win over Hoopeston Area. Salt Fork will host Westville on Friday.
Salt Fork hopes to make it two wins in a row against tough competition before the start of next week’s Chrisman Regional. A Bismarck-Henning loss would give the winner of Friday’s game between Salt Fork and Westville a share of the VVC crown.
“We’re just trying to win every single game,” Johnson said. “At this point in the season, you don’t want to have any setbacks at all. Whoever is on the schedule, that’s who we play, and we just attack it with the mentality of, let’s do what we do very well to get us forward with that ultimate goal of being that regional championship.”