The Wildcat boys' basketball team took a break from Big Rivers Conference action to make the long trip to Ashland Saturday, Jan. 19 and a lot of things happened while they were gone.
River Falls, Eau Claire North, Eau Claire Memorial and Hudson all entered the weekend tied for first place in the BRC. While the Wildcats were beating Ashland, 68-58, Chippewa Falls knocked off Eau Claire North and Hudson defeated Eau Claire Memorial. That leaves the Raiders at the top of the conference standings at 5-2, River Falls a half-game behind at 4-2, and Eau Claire North, Eau Claire Memorial and Chippewa Falls all tied for third at 4-3.
The Wildcats will look to keep pace with the Raiders when they visit Eau Claire North this Saturday, Jan. 26, and head coach Zac Campbell said the Cats will have their hands full. The Huskies defeated the Wildcats 62-39 in River Falls in the second game of the season Dec. 4.
"In the ever changing landscape of our conference race, any road win is a huge win," he said. "We will have the opportunity Saturday afternoon to travel to North and make a statement win in this race. Our identity as a team continues to improve and is in a much better spot than when they beat us here in the second game of the season."
Last Saturday in Ashland the Wildcats got 21 points from JT Dougherty and double-digit contributions from Zac Johnson and Mike Vitt to improve to 10-4 overall.
"This is never an easy trip to make," Campbell said. "As a coach you prefer your athletes in routine as much as possible, but traveling three-and-a-half hours, not having school that day, and playing against a team who doesn't get many opportunities at section games puts you in a situation that's anything but routine."
And the win was anything but routine for the Cats. They gave up 21 points at the free throw line and were just 4-of-19 from three-point range. But they forced 16 turnovers, were 16-of-21 on shots in the paint and visited the free throw line 27 times, making 20.
"JT Dougherty was a key contributor in finishing one-on-one opportunities from the block, finishing shots created by others off the bounce, and hitting a couple threes created by teammates finding the open man," Campbell said. "And Mike Vitt had a very efficient all around game. Mike was very efficient from the field and free throw line, did a great job of playing on balance, which allowed him to distribute the ball efficiently, and held their point guard to two points."
Vitt finished with 10 points and six assists in the win while Johnson contributed 13 points, three assists and three steals. Adam Feyereisen and Mike Johnson added nine points each.
Campbell said the Wildcat bench is a key to the team's success.
"We are a team who is trying to create energy plays and as the season has moved along Mike Johnson and Ezra Wells have helped raise our level of play through their energy they bring us off the bench," he said.
Campbell took pride in noting that the Wildcat varsity, JV, JV2 and freshmen teams are a combined 36-18 this season.
"This is a testament to the work put in the offseason and the buy-in to our athletic program," he said. "We have a lot of boys who maybe wouldn't call themselves basketball-first players but, in a community such as ours the value in being an athlete and using those skills in multiple sports to contribute to the betterment of our programs creates a culture that allows a program to have the success we've had in grades 9 through 12 this year."
As for Eau Claire North this Saturday, Campbell said containing the conference's leading scorer Dalton Banks, who is averaging 25 points per game, is not the only challenge the Cats will face.
"Containing Banks, who is regarded as one of the top players in the state, is a large task," he said. "However the shooters they put around him are the guys that really hurt us last time here at our place. Continuing to be quicker in our rotations and more disciplined with our hand placement will be a major focus for us this week to give us a chance to come away with a big victory on Saturday."