After opening the second half on a 14-2 run during its previous playoff round victory over the Fertile-Beltrami Falcons, the Gator Boys’ Basketball team jumped on its next opponent to open the second half. This time, the Gators opened the half on a 12-5 run to take a 36-20 lead.
The Gators would prove to need this opening run.
This time around, this run came in a game with even higher stakes— a section title. And, unlike the game versus the Falcons, the Gators’ opponent, the Cass Lake-Bena Panthers would battle back, drawing to within four a couple times late in the game.
Leading 52-48 as the clock ticked down under 20 seconds, the Gators made a key defensive stop. With 18 seconds left, Gator senior Aaron Westling took a charge. While getting pulled up by his Gator teammates, he let out a yell.
Not long after another Gator stop, senior Adam Benke ran down an open court and made a layup right before the buzzer sounded, putting the stamp on the night’s action.
The fans cheered, the hugging and yelling amongst the Gator players on the court began. The Gators had held off the Panthers long enough to claim the 55-48 Section 8A Boys’ Basketball Championship game win at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls on March 25.
Benke finished with 14 points in a game that delivered him with a moment he has been thinking about for a long time. He did it with senior teammates he has played with since elementary school.
“I’m stoked. This has been something I’ve always dreamed of,” Benke said, after getting lifted in the air by fellow senior teammate Conner Wojchowski. “I’ve watched so many games here (in the Ralph Engelstad Arena). This is just a dream come true to have it with all these guys.”
Fellow senior teammate Kasen Swenson, who finished with 11 points, also described this moment in a similar way.
“It’s amazing. We’ve been working for this for so long, all year pushing ourselves in practice and in games,” Swenson said. “And it’s a dream finally (made) a reality and I can’t thank these guys enough.”
It’s a reality 14 years in the making for the Gator program— one made before any of these current Gator players were even in elementary school.
With the win, the Gators clinched its second section title in program history and its first since 2007, when the team won on this same floor off a Nate Thompson half-court buzzer-beater shot.
Coaching that 2007 team, Coach Christian has watched some of these current players take their lumps in playoff action.
“(I’m) really, really excited for them. These guys have worked really, really hard,” Coach Christian said. “This has been a goal of theirs.”
A few years ago, Christian explained, teammates of some of these current Gator players, such as Jake Taggart, Brandon Sorenson, and Shaun Waage, began to set the tone.
“And they (these Gator players) just continued,” Coach Christian said.
The Gators program can now again call itself the Section 8A Champion. How does that sound? Benke and Swenson voiced similar sentiments.
“This feels amazing,” Benke said. “This is awesome. I love this.”
Coach Christian said, “Sounds outstanding. A lot of work goes into this. A lot of people deserve credit for this.”
He gave credit to Gator Activities Director Sharon Schultz for keeping everyone healthy. He recognized the office secretaries, Gator Nation, and custodians, including Dennis Pelowski, nicknamed “Big D,” who is a sounding board for Coach Christian and one of his biggest supporters.
“Section eight champs,” Coach Christian said. “We got another sticker on the board in the gym.”
What’s next? The chance for more stickers. The Gators (19-3) open the Class A State Boys’ Basketball Tournament versus an opponent and at site and time to be announced.
“We got state baby,” Swenson said. “Let’s go.”
Even though his team has made a dream a reality, Coach Christian doesn’t want this group to stop now. With another win, the Gators advance to the state semifinals at Target Center in Minneapolis.
“Let’s go to the big gym. We really like the Ralph (Engelstad Arena), but the Target Center is a special place to play too,” Coach Christian said. “So we’ll find out who we play… and we’ll go to work. And let’s try to keep it going. Let’s not be satisfied.”
The team enters the state tournament not only as a section champion and on a 10-game winning streak, but also with some confidence.
“Next is… state tournament,” Benke said. “We got it. This team can do it. I know we can.”
To see the complete story, read the March 31 issue of The Tribune in print or online.