The start of the 2016-17 campaign may not have gone exactly how the boys basketball program was hoping for. But as they turn the page to 2017, the hoops team hopes it is en route to regaining the form it found last year that led to a great season, capped by a state tournament run.
In the final game of 2016, Monti certainly took a step in that direction as they cruised to a 76-60 win against Sartell in St. Cloud. The win put Monti’s overall record at 2-7, following a 1-1 showing at the St. Cloud Granite City Classic where Monti also dropped a nail-biter to St. Cloud Apollo, a section rival. Both games provided reasons for Coach Jason Schmidt and the Magic, who opened the season with a daunting schedule, to be optimistic going forward.
Playing against Apollo at Halenbeck Hall on the St. Cloud State University campus, the Magic started the game in a post-Christmas funk. Monti scored just more than 20 points over the first 60 percent of the game, according to Schmidt, before starting to find a rhythm. At that point, Monti had fallen behind 33-21. Apollo was able to continue fending Monti off, holding the lead at 44-33 and still at 49-40. But then Monti made its run. The Magic outscored Apollo 13-4 to close the gap all the way to 55-53 with 1:30 to go in the game. After an Eagles’ free throw, Carson Sawatzke drilled a game-tying three to pull Monti all the way back to even at 56-56 with 56.5 seconds to go.
St. Cloud Apollo had an answer, however. The Eagles answered with a basket of their own, and after one empty Magic possession the Eagles made free throw after free throw to keep Monti at bay. Monti scored on its final three possessions, hitting two two-pointers and a three-pointer, but Apollo went six-for-six at the free throw line during the same stretch. So when Monti’s final three fell through it was only enough to bring Monti to within 64-63 as time ran out.
Schmidt said early in the game it was evident that Monti was fighting itself, and players were worrying about what they each had to do individually rather than together. With about 12 minutes left to go in the game, he saw that change.
“I think the light went on for them,” he said. “Nobody cared who shot, we were focused on how to win. That was a big thing to discover.”
The coach said he thinks that second half push helped show Monti a glimpse of how good they can be.
“That was the biggest thing, was realizing when we want to put it together, we can be really fun to watch,” he said.
Matt Todd scored 24 points to pace Monti in the loss, while Rezi Useh scored an extremely efficient 16 points, needing just six field goal attempts to get there. Useh hit four of his field goal attempts and went 8 for 10 from the line to reach 16. Todd was 9 for 10 from the line in the game, as Monti went an impressive 19 for 24 as a team. Todd was noticeable all over the court against Apollo, leading Monti with eight assists, five rebounds and five steals in the contest. Useh added four steals for Monticello.
The Magic were able to pick up where they left off against Sartell the next day. Monti jumped out to an early lead, something that has been a rarity for the Magic this season, and was able to keep building on it. A 33-24 lead turned into a 52-36 lead in the second half and from there the Magic cruised to a 76-60 win over the Sabres.
“I felt like that was our best complete game that we’ve played all year,” said Schmidt.
Todd and Useh paced the Magic once more, with 35 combined points. Todd scored 24 to lead the way, while Useh added 11. Overall though, it was a balanced attack for the Magic with sophomores Tommy Blackstone and Sawatzke scoring 9 and 8 points respectively and senior Drew Nelson adding seven for Monticello. Nelson added six rebounds to go with his seven points, while Useh led Monti with seven rebounds and added five assists. Todd added a team high-seven assists and six steals to go along with five rebounds in another impressive all-around effort.
For Useh, the two-game stretch in St. Cloud continued a run of strong play for the junior.
“His last three or four games are the best complete games I’ve ever seen him play,” said Schmidt. “It’s been really fun to watch him play.”
Schmidt said that Nelson is another kid that is finding his game as the season rolls along. The senior, who did not go out for basketball last year, provides an athletic presence for the Magic.
“He’s really starting to figure things out,” said Schmidt. “The game is slowing down for him.”
According to the coach, a couple of additional guys that may not show up in every box score but are making a big impact are Gabe Severson and Blake Thompson.
“They’re really working hard and giving us something,” he said, mentioning Thompson’s ability to keep possessions alive for Monti. “It starts to be contagious.”
Todd, Monti’s star guard, has been setting a similar tone in recent weeks.
“He’s really doing a lot of things to help us win,” said Schmidt. “Diving for loose balls, rebounding, and he took a charge against Sartell. When he is stepping in and doing that, everyone else realizes they have to do it too.”
Schmidt said the other sophomores such as Sawatzke, Austin Puppe and Shawn Sellner have all shown great things as well.
Now, for everyone, it is just a matter of finding and maintaining consistency. One thing Schmidt hopes will help them do that is the brutal schedule they’ve opened with that has seen them square off against some of the best teams in Class AA and Class AAA.
“When you have a schedule like we have, you don’t necessarily have a chance to get your feet under you,” he said. “[But] if you look at who we’ve played, that’s what’s going to allow us to be successful [later this season].”
The signs of a turnaround have been popping up in practice said Schmidt, where Monti has stayed focused and determined during the last couple of weeks.
“That gives me the most encouragement going forward,” he said. “When you see it in practice, eventually it carries over to the game.”
And while the struggles Monti has endured early in the season haven’t been pleasant, they also haven’t come as a total shock to Schmidt. And they certainly haven’t put a damper on his expectations for the remainder of the season.
“I knew there would be growing pains, I just didn’t know what they would look like,” said Schmidt, adding that the tough schedule has certainly made the growing pains look a bit worse, record-wise.
“Our goal is by the end of the year to be back where we were at the end of the year last year,” he said. “But to start the year there is just not realistic.”
The coach does believe Monti has gotten closer in the last week plus.
“Absolutely I’ve seen a lot of progress,” he said. “You just have to keep plugging away.”
Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]