Every good team has at least one calling card.
While it may be too early to settle on the best adjectives for the Monticello boys basketball team, it certainly isn’t too early to determine that they have two calling cards.
They used their trademarks, defense and unselfishness, to manufacture a three-game winning streak last week, leaving their record at .500 (4-4) through eight games.
“I knew we’d be right around this point,” said Coach Jason Schmidt. “I really did. I just sensed there was a lot of determination and focus by our seniors. I’m not totally surprised we’re sitting in a spot like this right now.”
It would be hard to blame anyone who is surprised. The Magic, who won just six games last year and graduated 80 percent of their scoring, are already two-thirds of the way to that win total, just one-third of the way into their schedule.
“It’s really surprised me, to be honest,” said Junior Tyler Frie, after scoring 21 points during Saturday’s victory over Bemidji. “I didn’t expect us to be sitting here at 4-3. It’s a good surprise.”
The Magic victories haven’t felt like surprises though. They’ve earned convincing victories, both in margin and manner, including wins over Zimmerman and Bemidji last week, before falling to St. Michael-Albertville Tuesday night.
Last Thursday night, Monticello played host to Zimmerman. With both teams playing up tempo Schmidt said the game was a little sloppy in the first half. When the horn sounded for intermission the Magic led 35-24, but felt like there were things to clean up.
“We didn’t necessarily finish or shoot well in the first half, and we gave them some second chance opportunities,” said Schmidt. “We made some adjustments at halftime.”
They paid off.
Monticello clamped down on Zimmerman from the opening minutes of the second half, as the Magic pulled away en route to a 68-33 blowout.
The Magic, who got to play their junior varsity for the final third of the second half, allowed just two field goals and nine second half points.
“Our defensive intensity really picked up. We sensed that we had a chance to put them away,” said Schmidt. “They felt the pressure, and it really kind of broke their spirit.”
Offensively, it was another balanced attack from the Magic. Michael Revenig led the way with 16 points, Matt Grathwohl added a season-high 13 points and Erik Hammill tacked on 11 points. Sophomore Thomas Schyma provided one of the highlights to the young season when he came off the bench to score 7 points in the final minutes of the game.
“Things like that are really big for those guys,” said Schmidt. “What’s really fun isn’t just them being out there, it’s the older guys cheering them on. That’s a sign of things moving in the right direction.”
The older guys got another chance to cheer on the bench on Saturday afternoon, at the tail end of another convincing win, this time over Bemidji, 72-54.
Playing their second straight game at home, the Magic seemed to use the energy from the crowd to jump out to a fast start.
While their efficiency on offense didn’t completely match their intensity on defense, it was more than good enough to grab the early lead.
With the Magic getting steals and forcing bad shots early, they got out in transition and got enough layups to cover up their own turnovers as they pulled out to a 12-2 lead five minutes into the game. Frie and James Schyma each had four points early to help get the Magic started.
A few minutes later when Frie finished through contact on the left side of the rim, Monticello’s lead was extended to 22-8, their largest of the game to that point.
Getting out to an early lead, something they’ve done in most of their wins, allows the Magic to just focus on playing basketball, according to Frie.
“It’s really nice,” he said. “You’re not always concerned about the scoreboard, you can just come out and play.”
Bemidji would make a run to cut the lead to 28-20 late in the half, but Monticello, as they would all game, had an answer.
Frie, who scored 17 first-half points on the way to a game-high 21, spun through traffic and finished tough at the rim again, this time getting the foul and knocking down the free throw for a three-point play. Two minutes later, Revenig, who added 17 points for the Magic, hit his second three of the game and the Magic were able to take a 36-22 lead into the locker room.
In the second half, Bemidji changed their plan of attack. The Lumberjacks tried to set the tone as the aggressor, pressing and trapping the Magic in the backcourt. The approach worked early, as the visitors cut the lead all the way to 39-33.
But again, Monticello had an answer. Consecutive layups from Travis Moe and Ryan Todd pushed the lead back to ten, a Grathwohl three-pointer made it 13, and when Todd added a free throw the lead was back to 14 at 47-33.
The game of runs continued with Bemidji scoring the next seven points, but this time Revenig answered with a three-pointer, putting Monticello up ten with ten minutes remaining. The Lumberjacks wouldn’t threaten again.
With four minutes left, Monticello was finally able to put them away for good. Brody Grantz hit Frie with a full court pass for a layin, and after an ensuing steal, Grantz threw another full-court pass, this time to Revenig, for another layin. The Magic lead was pushed to 63-46, and the home team was well on its way to a 4-3 record.
The Magic players are thrilled with the start. They, and their coach, are equally excited about the way they’re doing it.
“It really shows that we can play as a team,” said Frie. “We’re not a selfish team. We’re ready to come out and share the ball and play as one. It’s five guys playing for one team.”
That unselfishness had led to one of the best starts for the Magic over the last handful of years and it has given them plenty of confidence as they prepare to step into conference season and face tougher competition.
“It’s a great confidence boost,” said Frie. “We’re just coming out, looking to play our style of basketball and end up around the .500 mark. Or, even better.”
Tuesday night, the Magic lost a hard-fought battle at St. Michael-Albertville.
Monticello took a 30-28 lead into the half, and led 38-33 early in the second half, but couldn’t withstand a late Knights charge as they fell 67-53.
Frie, aided by a seven-for-seven performance at the free throw line, scored 21 points on just 10 shots to lead the Magic again. Grantz added 12 points and four assists for Monticello.
The Magic host the Rogers Royals Friday night. The conference game is scheduled to tip off at 7:15.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at email@example.com