Things started out fairly well for the sixth-ranked Blake Bears, who were playing top-ranked DeLaSalle at home on a Tuesday night in February. After DeLaSalle star forward Reid Travis missed two free throws, a nice lob inside ended in an easy dunk for Blake, and the home crowd went wild as the Bears took an early 2-0 lead.
Unfortunately that would be the last lead of the game for Blake. Over the next seven minutes DeLaSalle flat-out overpowered the Bears, going on a 19-2 run. The Islanders forced turnovers, knocked down three-pointers and got a few easy dunks of their own, but head coach Dave Thorson was not satisfied. He called a timeout and began berating his team.
“This is about us, not about them, not about the score,” he yelled.
During last season’s championship run DeLaSalle had lost to Blake for the first time in over two decades, and Thorson was not about to leave anything to chance. The Islanders went into the half up 20 points and ended up winning 79-54.
“No one is going to remember who won any game on Feb. 12, everyone’s going to remember what happened the third Saturday in March, that’s what we’re playing for,” explained Thorson after the game, referring to the state championship game on March 23.
This year DeLaSalle has assembled what many regard as the most talented team in the state, despite competing in class 3A, the second-highest level of competition in Minnesota. At a recent practice it became clear during a lay-up drill that nearly every single player on the team can dunk the ball with ease, from the 6 foot 7, 240-pound Travis to slight junior guard Geno Crandall, who maybe weighs 140 pounds sopping wet.
Travis also plays quarterback for the Islanders, who finished 10-2 after losing to Becker in the quarterfinals of the state tournament last year. Although he is only a junior, schools across the country are lining up to recruit him. He has received “about 10” Division I scholarship offers to play football and over 20 to play basketball.
After watching his powerful, polished offensive game it’s easy to see why. Playing in class 3A, Travis is always guarded by the opposing team’s tallest player, which is usually a hopelessly overmatched gangly kid. Teams sag and collapse around him when he gets the ball in the post and usually resort to fouling him, hard.
“He got the hell beat out him last night and it just drives me crazy,” said Thorson as he reviewed game film before practice the day after the Blake game. “But Reid’s a warrior, he never complains, he just plays.”
Thorson prides himself on his exhaustive film studies. After burning over 750 DVDs last season he switched to an all-digital system this year, using the same video editing software the Timberwolves use.
Like many coaches Thorson hoards video tape. By the time last year’s championship game against Washburn rolled around he had nine of their games on tape, which he spent three days editing. The Islanders ended up needing every bit of preparation, winning by one point on a dramatic, last-second shot in overtime.
This year DeLaSalle is the heavy favorite to repeat as state champs, even though only two of their top eight players are seniors. They beat Park Center — who at the time was ranked number one in class 4A — by 14 points and perennial 4A power Eden Prairie by 17 points earlier this season. The Islanders have also beat teams from Iowa, South Dakota and New York and their only loss was by five points to Blue Valley Northwest, the top-ranked team in Kansas.
“If we had a rematch with them,” said senior guard Luke Scott, trailing off for a few seconds. “Oh man I’d like to have a rematch with them.”
Scott is the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 15.0 points per game. He is a part of the Islanders’ embarrassment of riches in the backcourt. Guards Trey Shepard, Geno Crandall, Jarvis Johnson and Sacar Anim use their quickness and athleticism to make it a chore for opposing guards just to get the ball across half court. The Islanders’ defensive pressure forces a ton of turnovers and many of their points come on easy fast break lay-ups.
“If any of our guys went to another team in our conference they’d be the leading scorers, no doubt,” said Scott.
Coach Thorson is careful to point out that any slip-up could derail the Islanders’ championship bid, but he does anticipate facing second-ranked Austin in the title game.
“No offense to Park Center, or Osseo or Apple Valley, but I think Austin is the best team in the state, throwing us out of the equation,” said Thorson.
Austin is one of two teams in the state that is still undefeated, and Thorson has already seen them play three times this season. In the mean time the team is trying to stay focused, despite winning their last 10 games by an average of 36.8 points.
“Sometimes it’s hard to always keep your mindset sharp, to always stay motivated,” said Travis. “Every game is a building step, we treat it like practice, always trying to get better and get to where we need to be to win a championship.”
If Thorson is able to keep his team focused he should have a solid chance at obtaining his fifth championship in 18 years as coach of DeLaSalle, and with 10 out of 13 varsity players returning next season, he could have the makings of a dynasty.