Loeffler's Link

Streaking Falcons fly into Elite 8,
face second-ranked Fighting Irish

Chris Leuckel

March 1, 2019

WARDSVILLE, Mo. --- It's one of the truisms of high school basketball, something every coach says every year.

We want to be playing our best basketball in February.

Right. It's Coach Speak, 101, you can set your clock to it.

More accurately in this case, however, you can set your calendar to it. Because as we freeze our way into March during this never-ending winter, Blair Oaks still hasn't lost a basketball game this year.

February came early for the Falcons. The thing is, they're still getting better.

This basketball team has three football players on the roster, and two of them play critical roles. As you probably know, the Blair Oaks football season didn't end until Nov. 30 as the Falcons steamrolled their way to the Class 2 state championship.

"Obviously, you wouldn't change anything with the football guys," Blair Oaks basketball coach Ryan Fick said. "They had an amazing season. But we had 25 practices before they joined us. Up until two weeks ago, we finally got to where they'd been to half of our total practices. That blows your mind to think about.

"It's been a complete work in progress, shot selection, guys understanding where the ball needs to go within our offense ... the kids just have a much better understanding of what we're trying to do."

Fick continued.

"As football continued to win," he said, "and we had an idea going in that it was a good possibility, we knew that we were going to take on many different looks throughout the year. And we truly did want to be playing our basketball in February, and we feel like we are."

You could say that. Now, the sixth-ranked Falcons (24-5) will carry an 18-game winning streak into the Class 3 quarterfinals where they'll face the second-ranked Springfield Catholic Fighting Irish (27-3) at noon Saturday in Bolivar.

The Irish are sizzling hot, too, as they've won eight straight and 11 of 12

"Springfield Catholic's also better now than they were early in the season," Fick said. "They've had an entire season to get better."

The Falcons started the season 6-5 as they were trying to integrate All-State football players Nolan Hair and Braydan Pritchett into the rotation. One of those losses came to the Irish, a 66-50 setback Dec. 14 in Wardsville.

That's one of very few down moments this season, which has produced one amazing, memorable ride.

"It has been fun," Fick said. "We knew going in with the schedule we'd put together that it was going to be challenging. If you look at the first half of the schedule, it was tough.

"But looking back on it, it's done what we'd hope it would do ... it forced us to take a look at ourselves and see what we needed to do to get better. Once you learn those things, the next step is trying is working on them and improving."

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THIS TEAM HAS NUMEROUS STRENGTHS, one being it has more well-defined roles than the cast in the school play.

"It's definitely a process," Fick said, "and you see that it's not the case on some teams, where it's not easy to define roles and kids aren't always accepting of their roles.

"Everyone wants to play lot, everyone wants to produce and see their name in the paper, but in reality, that's not always the case. But this group has done a really good job of accepting their roles and being supportive of each other.

"It's been really fun to see as a coach."

We'll start the role play with Hair and Pritchett, the glue guys who hold this team together.

"We've got three All-State football players (including Corban Bonnett) who have accepted their roles, and they're not what would be considered the man in basketball," Fick said. "They come to practice every day and they understand that what they do is very important to us.

"It's obvious when you watched us early in the season that we were missing something. But those guys have kind of brought it all together."

Then there's the talented trio of 6-8 junior Eric Northweather, 6-6 senior Dru Rackers and 5-10 senior Trent Martin.

Northweather leads the team in both scoring (18.5 ppg.) and rebounding (8 rpg.), Rackers is second in both (13 and 5), while the sharp-shooting Martin is shooting 40 percent on 3-pointers and averaging 12 points a game.

"Eric's having a great season," Fick said, "but Dru is probably the most improved guy on our team this year. And it's fun to see Trent have this kind of success with the amount of time he's put in."

The Falcons are seeking the school's third trip to the Final Four and second state championship. Behind 6-10 Paul Miller, who went on to play at Wichita State, Blair Oaks went to the Final Four in 2000 and 2001, winning it all Miller's senior season.

But getting there again won't be easy, as they'll be facing a skilled, senior-laden Irish team.

"Their guard play is special --- everything they do hinges around their guard play," Fick said. "Jake Branhum (6-2, sr., 19 ppg., scored 24 in the first game vs. Blair Oaks), it starts with him, he's a guy who shoots the ball well and can get to the basket, so he's tough to guard.

"They just move so well without the ball on offense. There's constant movement in their motion offense, they read well, and they've got a team full of guys who've played a lot of basketball together.

"And they're really sound defensively. If you break down the first wave, their help defense and their rotations are really solid."

This is shaping up to be something special, a clash of two Titans. But who will win and advance? The really good team or the other really good team? Simple.

The team that's playing it's best basketball in March.

Coach Ryan Fick and the Blair Oaks Falcons will travel to Bolivar on Saturday to clash with Springfield Catholic in the Class 3 quarterfinals.

Sectional sweep:

Cario ousts Iberia

boys, Eugene girls