BY AARON PATTERSON
When the basketball season began for the Salt Fork Storm, first-year coach Andrew Johnson’s goals were somewhat vague, but direct enough to leave his team hungry for success. Simply put, he wanted the Storm to win as many championships as possible.
Salt Fork landed one of its targets early, winning the BSN Classic, and later followed it up with the program’s fourth regional title, and first in three years. The Class 1A seventh-ranked Storm finished the regular season with the confidence of a team hopeful of adding to its list.
Their bid for a sectional title ended, however, with a frustrating 56-43 loss to Arthur-Loving in Thursday’s Schlarman Academy Sectional semifinal.
“Winning the regional is definitely the highlight of my senior year,” Storm senior forward Alec Dutton said. “Losing tonight hurts, but by no means does it eclipse what happened this season. I’ll leave this locker room loving all the guys in there.
“It was a great experience, and there is nothing to hang my head about. I had a great four years. It was just great being with all of these guys as long as I could be.”
In Salt Fork’s two regional contests, it was able to overcome late-game deficits against both the Chrisman Cardinals and Shiloh Raiders. That confidence gave the Storm hope that a comeback against the Knights was possible, and at least the opportunity to play for a sectional title was still real.
Salt Fork (25-5) trailed the entire contest and found itself down by as many as 16. Pulling to within seven with one minute, 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter seemed almost like a victory to a team that could never muster enough defense to hold down a pesky Arthur-Lovington team. Nothing that worked for the Storm in their previous two come-from-behind wins worked against the Knights.
“What happened before was, when we turned up the defense, we were able to shut teams down,” Dutton said. “But Arthur, tonight, they just kept making their shots and there was really nothing we could do about it.”
It was senior Andrew Maxwell who hurt the Storm most, draining three consecutive three-pointers in the first quarter during Arthur-Lovington’s 11-4 run that stunned Salt Fork. Maxwell finished with a total of five threes and a game-high 23 points.
“As far as my scouting report was concerned, he wasn’t much of a shooter at all,” Johnson said. “He stepped up tonight and made some big shots for them early, and even later in the game. He played a great game.”
The Knights forced the Storm into 11 turnovers, nine in the first half, and hit 16 of their 22 free throws. Arthur-Lovington hit nine of 10 free throws in the fourth quarter.
“I thought Arthur really executed down the stretch and had great ball defense, and forced us into some turnovers and some bad shots early,” Storm junior center Max Stutsman said. “We really just couldn’t capitalize. We were within five and turned the ball over, and they just came down and hit some threes. (Maxwell) killed us from behind the arc.”
Making matters worse, Salt Fork point guard Ross Learnard picked up two fouls in the first half, and was whistled for his fourth with one second to go in the third quarter. Three of the Storm’s guards (Learnard, Taylor Kirby, and Cole Taylor) ended the game with four fouls each.
Salt Fork went on runs of 8-2 and 12-4 in the final period, but simply couldn’t overcome Arthur-Lovington’s execution. The Storm never got closer than eight points in the fourth quarter.
“They made key shots and executed key plays every time we got a little bit of momentum or a run going,” Johnson said. “That’s a credit to their offensive execution. There were times where if we would have got one more stop, we would have been able to get over that hump, and it just didn’t happen tonight. It was a backdoor layup that they got, or a set screen that they set up for a three-point shot. They shot very well tonight and executed their offense. We just needed that one or two stops that would have made the biggest difference.”
The loss ends the careers of seniors Dutton (nine points, five rebounds) and Clayton Fauver, but intensifies the hunger of the team’s returning players including Stutsman (14 points, 12 rebounds), Learnard (nine points), Taylor (11 points), Kirby, and Noah Darr.
“The seniors, I told them after the game how proud I was of them about their leadership and being able to walk away from this season and their careers having a regional championship — being the fourth in the school’s history. You can’t take that away from them. That’s something they will remember for the rest of their lives. They did a good job of leadership in practice, and at the same time leading by example. Always being upbeat and positive, even in times when it was a little bit tough. They did a good job on that. I’m very proud of what they did.”
Johnson will also have another year with a roster filled with talent, and potential of exceeding this year’s accomplishments. And the experience gained from a season of success — with glimpses of struggle — can only bode well for the 2013-2014 version of the Salt Fork Storm.
“I think we’ll be back next year,” Stutsman said. “We’ve got to compete and have a great regular season, and I think this experience is really going to help, just being here and seeing what it feels like. We’re going to have a sour taste in our mouths with how we got beat in the sectional. We want to make it farther next year.”