BY AARON PATTERSON
Sitting in a relatively quiet gym at Catlin High School, first-year Salt Fork boys basketball coach Andrew Johnson looked over game and practice notes while his seventh-ranked Storm prepared for Tuesday’s practice.
Salt Fork was days removed from winning its first regional title since 2010, and the Storm was looking forward to taking on Arthur-Lovington (22-6) in Wednesday’s Schlarman Academy Sectional semifinal.
The weather had different plans, as the semifinal between St. Anne and Cissna Park was postponed on Tuesday, moving the Salt Fork contest to 7:30 p.m. tonight.
“It’s always nice to have an extra day of practice in preparation for your opponent, and at the same time being able to shore up some loose ends on some things that maybe you wanted to spend more time on, that originally in two days you wouldn’t have been able to do,” Johnson said.
“Obviously, it throws a little wrench in the schedule, but at the same time, we’ve just got to be able to react to it and adjust based on what we’re dealing with.”
Reacting and working through even the slightest bit of adversity is all the Storm have done so far this postseason.
Until last week’s Chrisman regional semifinal against the host Cardinals, Salt Fork (25-4) had not responded well to being down late in a contest. But for the first time this season, the Storm battled back from a second-half deficit to win. Salt Fork trailed the entire game until overtime when it outscored Chrisman 6-0.
The Storm’s regional championship game against Shiloh was no different. They didn’t take their first lead of the fourth quarter until two minutes remaining when Taylor Kirby drained a pair of free throws.
“It started against Chrisman when we were down eight with about four minutes to go,” Salt Fork junior center Max Stutsman said. “We just all had to get together. What we had to step up was our defense and force them into turnovers and bad shots.
“Against Shiloh, we were down, I think, one in the fourth quarter and really what we capitalized on were our free throws. That’s huge, finishing down the stretch.”
Regardless of the opponent then, and moving forward, Johnson has maintained that the best chance for his team to continue extending its season is to not worry so much about what the opposition might be doing, but rather doing what his team does best. And in its last four games, Salt Fork has stepped up its defense, and made free throws with relative consistency.
The Storm have outscored their opponents 69-46 in the fourth quarter and overtime during the four-game winning streak, and have hit 76 percent of their free throws.
They realize they will have to continue that trend, or better it, in the Schlarman Academy Sectional, beginning with tonight’s game against the pesky Arthur-Lovington Knights.
The Knights won the Arcola Regional by knocking off top-seeded Moweaqua Central A&M, 60-59, in come-from-behind fashion on a last-second shot.
“A group of us went to see them,” Storm senior forward Alec Dutton said. “They’re a pretty physical and tough team. I think it will be a good match-up. Obviously, at this time in the season, anything is going to be a dogfight. It’s going to be a fun game.
“We’re going to have to be physical,” he added. “They are a very scrappy team. We’re going to have to stick with what we do best, keep our heads up, and keep pushing the whole time.”
Perhaps one of the toughest aspects of Arthur-Lovington’s game to prepare for, according to Johnson, is its depth. The Knights go 10 to 11 deep, and studying up on the tendencies of all who will see the court could present a challenge for the Salt Fork coaching staff and players.
Arthur-Lovington is in the first year of its basketball co-op, but is able to draw so much talent from two individual programs that have each experienced success on their own. Prior to this season, Arthur and Lovington combined for four regional titles since 2008.
Salt Fork is making its third sectional appearance since 2009. The Storm won the Westville Sectional in 2010 before going on to win the Class 1A state title. And while there might be a level of expectation surrounding the program considering its most recent success, those within the program feel no pressure.
Though seniors Dutton and Clayton Fauver were freshmen in 2010, they never saw the court.
“I wouldn’t say there’s an expectation, but everyone saw what those guys did and want to kind of recreate what happened,” Dutton said. “None of us played on that team, so it’s not like there is some standing standard that we have to meet. We just want to be the best that we can.”
Making their own history is the central focus of this year’s Storm team, and simplified even further, all they want to do is have an opportunity to play for a sectional title.
“Expectations in my mind are kind of what you put on yourself,” said Johnson, who played for the Storm and graduated in 2003. “I know the program’s had a ton of success in the past, and those things we’re very, very proud of. But our goal coming into this season was to compete for as many championships as possible and to reach that regional championship. With that in mind, everything that we do from now on, we just continue to be hungry for those extra championships.
“From the aspect of the expectations, it’s really what you put on yourself. I think the kids have adjusted to that pretty well. We just want to continue our season as far as it can take us.”