As the losses mounted last season, La Crescent High School boys basketball coach Ryan Thibodeau could feel the frustrations of his players building, too.
The Lancers simply weren’t as bad as their results — 1-24 a year ago — indicated.
“We knew were better than what we showed,” Thibodeau said. “We just had to find the right pieces and get them in place.”
La Crescent has certainly done that.
In front of an electric crowd of about 600 people at Mac Dahl Gymnasium on Tuesday, the Lancers gutted out a quality Three Rivers Conference win by topping Rushford-Peterson 49-48 in overtime.
Lancers junior Thomas Kiesau made a go-ahead free throw with 4.9 second left in overtime, then stole the Trojans’ final inbound pass to seal the win.
The difference in the Lancers’ (4-2, 4-0 TRC) style of play was evident throughout the night. Their actions have a sense of purpose and a belief that they can make the necessary plays to pull out wins.
Defensively, the Trojans (3-2, 1-2) pride themselves on creating turnovers with an aggressive half-court trap and a 2-3 zone that will extend out to trap opponents in the corners. La Crescent players were smart and deliberate with the ball, staying poised even when the double teams did come.
Lancers were also able to get Rushford-Peterson to extend too far, leaving easy back-door cuts to the basket open for layups.
“The energy level and the confidence level of this group,” Thibodeau said was the biggest difference this season. “They endured a tough year, but they were focused a determined to be competitive. It’s shown in the results. We’ve got a confident group. They believe in one another.”
Sophomore Zach Todd led La Crescent with 13 points, including the opening basket in overtime. Fellow sophomore Luke Schwartzhoff had 12, while senior Ben Nelson had 12 on four 3-pointers.
Rushford-Peterson’s Payton Hahn led his team with 14, while Landon Skalet added 13.
While it was tough to glean a silver lining from the losses of last season in the moment, the experience players built together on the floor is paying off this year. La Crescent has nine seniors on the roster, and almost the entire team from a year ago returned.
Even when the scoreboard isn’t in your favor, you learn about your teammates — and yourself — by getting minutes on the floor.
The Lancers knew they could trust Nelson at the end, and that’s why when they needed a 3 in the final minute of regulation, they fed Nelson immediately. He got the ball up just as quickly to nail to tying 3. Nelson also drilled a 3 early in overtime to give La Crescent an early cushion.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys that were ready to take their game to the next level. And they’re doing that in terms of on the basketball court and in the weight room,” Thibodeau said. “We’re still figuring out roles with this team, so in my mind, we’re only going to get better.”
Players like Schwartzhoff continue to find ways to make an impact on the resurgent Lancers.
His 3-pointer in the final minute of the first half Tuesday tied the game at 21 and answered a 3 from Hahn, who had three triples in the first half. Schwartzhoff also brought the gym to a frenzy with a breakaway steal and dunk with about 6:40 left in the first half.
“We can use pretty much 10 guys a night who have some experience, are ready to play, know their roles,” Thibodeau said.
Todd came off the bench and attacked the basket repeatedly, getting layups when the defense extended too far.
The Lancers are already improved from a season ago, but the Three Rivers schedule can be a grind on any team. How they continue their ascension from the conference basement will ultimately determine the status of the program.
But on Tuesday, they showed the poise, skill, and grit necessary to be a tough team to play on any night.
Colten Bartholomew is a sports reporter and columnist for the La Crosse Tribune.