BY AARON PATTERSON
The entire season, Salt Fork Storm first-year head coach Andrew Johnson stressed to his team the importance of defense. He knew it would eventually pay off. If they could rely on it during the regular season, it would certainly come through later when they needed it most.
Johnson preached, and the Storm followed. And without a strong defensive effort in Friday’s Class 1A Chrisman Regional title game, the Storm might have watched their season come to an abrupt halt. But the usual suspects, and frequent unsung heroes of the seventh-ranked Storm, came through to aid in a 53-47 win over the Shiloh Raiders to give Salt Fork its first regional title since 2010.
“Defense is the most important thing,” Storm senior forward Clayton Fauver said. “Defense wins championships. It helped in this game, and we won the regional championship.”
Fauver was scoreless in the game, attempted only one shot which came in the fourth quarter, and had two assists. His stat line isn’t very impressive. The Salt Fork coaches, though, might have been more impressed with his performance than any other on the team. He did nearly everything they asked of him.
“Pretty much my only goal for this game was to shut down Cyrus (Furgeson),” Fauver said. “He’s a very good basketball player and scores a lot of points every game. So holding him to nine was a win for me and our team.”
Furgeson was the Raiders’ second-leading scorer behind Andrew Donithan (18 points, seven rebounds), but limiting him to only three baskets on seven attempts was a victory in the eyes of the Storm. In Wednesday’s semifinal against Schlarman Academy, Furgeson torched the Hilltoppers for 28 points including seven three-pointers.
“Clayton Fauver and Taylor Kirby did a phenomenal job on Furgeson,” Johnson said. “That kid’s a great athlete, a very good shooter, and they dogged him all night long. They stayed with him.
“He was limited in his opportunities, and that’s what we thought our best bet was. I’m very proud of their defensive effort. But again, we’ve been relying on our defense all year. It was just a thing that we know that we can rely on, and they continue to do that moving forward. “
Salt Fork (25-4) was forced to battle its way back into the game late, and didn’t take its final lead until two minutes remaining in the contest following a 9-2 run. But battling is something the Storm had grown accustomed to doing. In the semifinal win over the host Chrisman Cardinals, Salt Fork trailed the entire contest until finally taking the lead in overtime. They had no doubt that facing a tough Shiloh team would present another challenge.
“We were very fortunate to win that game,” Johnson said of the semifinal, noting that Chrisman had just defeated his team 12 days earlier on the same court. “We had to scrap to get ourselves into it, we had to scrap to get ourselves back into this one. It’s just a testament to the toughness of our kids and to the way they go about themselves in practice and in games and never giving up.”
There were eight ties and 13 lead changes in the game. Junior guard Ross Learnard was responsible for breaking one of the ties at the end of the first half when he scored on a putback as the buzzer sounded to give the Storm a 23-21 lead. He later gave his team a lead at the end of the third quarter when he drained a three-pointer just before the clock expired, putting Salt Fork up 38-36.
Learnard finished with a game high 27 points including five threes, and he did it all seeing limited action after picking up two fouls within the first four minutes of the game, and then his third just over three minutes into the second half.
“We were just trying to get him to that second half where he didn’t have three fouls,” Johnson said. “He picked up another one early, but I thought he did a great job of being smart and focusing on just playing solid defense. That’s really what he did. He was still able to pressure and be active, but he really did a good job of just focusing fundamentally on his defense and not fouling. I thought he did a great job, and it didn’t slow him down defensively at all.”
Learnard came up with two of his three steals late in the game, the first with 40 seconds remaining. Salt Fork held a 50-47 lead, and the theft prevented the Raiders from a possible game-tying basket. He was fouled on the play, and though he missed both free throws, Kirby pulled down the offensive rebound. Learnard’s final steal came 20 seconds later securing the win and the title.
“It’s an awesome feeling getting that regional title back to where it belongs with Salt Fork,” Learnard said. “It’s just an awesome feeling. It’s been a rollercoaster ride all season, but we’ve worked hard for it. I’m speechless.”
Max Stutsman scored 11 points and had a game-high 10 rebounds while Cole Taylor finished with eight points and three steals. Alec Dutton scored five and had four boards.
Success came quickly for Johnson in his first year at the helm, and the celebration will be short-lived as the Storm now prepare for next week’s Schlarman Academy Sectional semifinal. But the former Salt Fork player, and now coach, will be sure to savor every second possible.
“Coming back here, I knew we had a good group of kids,” Johnson said. “I knew we had some talent to work with. Throughout the entire year, we kept focusing on, we want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year. We want that opportunity to play for a regional championship. Those guys had that in the back of their minds the entire season.
“We had bumps in the road and we had times we didn’t play well, but ultimately, these kids stepped up each and every time they were asked tonight. There were times that they got us down. To be a first-year coach back in this system, not just as a player but as a coach now, it feels great.”
Salt Fork will next play on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. against the winner of today’s Arcola Regional championship between Moweaqua Central A and M, and Arthur-Lovington.