It’s a good thing the extended 2021 state basketball tournaments aren’t too far away from Norris High School in southern Lancaster County. Because as the winding road of the basketball season comes into focus it’s becoming clearer that both Titan teams could enjoy a lengthy journey in Lincoln.
The Norris girls (15-1) are top-ranked in Class B after an Eastern Midlands Conference championship game win over Elkhorn North on Saturday. They have won eight straight games with six of them over ranked or receiving vote Class B teams.
First-year coach Jimmy Motz boys’ team (13-1) is ranked second and won their first EMC conference title since 2007 with a 54-44 win over Elkhorn in the final and followed it up with a 70-53 win over No. 6 Beatrice on Tuesday night.
Motz said the teams certainly feed off each other.
“We just have a lot of competitive kids in our school right now,” said Motz, who played at Creighton, coached Sterling to a state title and came to Norris this year after stops at Central City and Columbus. “We have kids that are multi-sport athletes and our coaching staffs work together to get the most out of them.
“And, I think our girls and boys programs really support each other as well.”
The proof is in the records and for both teams the success was somewhat expected. Coach Mark Hagerman’s girls squad returned a nucleus that took state champion Crete to overtime in the first round of the tournament a season ago.
“We had a group that had pretty high expectations coming into the season,” Hagerman said. “We have been through some injuries during the season, but we have worked through that.”
Hagerman said the injury bug may even have turned into a blessing. He now can mix and match multiple line ups and plays a 9-player rotation. They topped No. 7 Beatrice on Tuesday despite not having point guard Mollie Ramsey.
In Hagerman’s rotation, he has five seniors, three juniors and a sophomore. He credits off-season improvement from some 2020 role players as a big reason for his team’s success with junior Delaney White leading the team in both scoring (11.1 points) and rebounding (6.9).
Seniors Breana Stai and Maddy Collier average 10 and 8.1 points each.
“Delaney went from a JV and varsity player for us last year, to our leading scorer and rebounder,” Hagerman said. “She has really improved her game and Maddy is a player who has turned into a really good shooter for us and has made 29 3-point shots this year.”
Stai, Ramsey and fellow senior Kalli Kroeker were all key contributors last year. Stai has missed five games to a knee injury, but adds 5.2 rebounds to her 10 point average while Ramsey and Kroeker bring intangibles. Ramsey leads the team in assists (3.7) and steals (2.2), while Kroeker is second in rebounding (6.7 per game).
Sophomore Gracie Kircher and junior Sophie Talero also provide valuable minutes, with Kircher at 6.3 points per game. Talero hit three 3-point shots in a Tuesday win over Beatrice.
“We have a group of girls that they all have just really stepped up into their role,” Hagerman said. “We have girls that started earlier in the year, that are coming off the bench now and giving us a lift. I find myself asking, ‘How can I get this girl more playing time?'”
The Norris boys had the same fate as their girls in 2020 at the state tournament losing to champion Omaha Skutt in the first round, 65-58. But, like their girls, they had a good core coming back. And, Motz said he just wanted to build off of last year for his seven seniors, who are working with their third coach in four seasons.
But, his Titans haven’t really missed a beat either, rattling off seven straight wins after a 50-41 loss to Waverly on January 8th. Motz’s deep crew of seven seniors all average more than 5.5 points per contest with three players in double figures.
“You know at the beginning of the year, our goal was to just help them build off of what they did last season,” Motz said. “We didn’t want to re-invent the wheel, but we want to try and let them get up and down the court a little more and play a few more high possession games.”
Norris has succeeded in that regard, hitting 60 points in nine of their 14 games when they did it just once in 2020. Returning all-state player Trey Deveaux leads the team with a 16.6 points per game average, while also pulling down 8.1 rebounds. CJ Hood (11.0) and Brayson Mueller (13.2) are also in double figures.
“Trey is doing a little bit of everything for us,” Motz said. “He is playing really well for us on both ends. And, then going into the season, we knew he and CJ would be scorers for us and we wondered who might step up and be that third scorer and Brayson has done that and really been an X-factor for us.”
Dane Small and Cade Rice are the other two starters and both play invaluable roles. Rice, the point guard, is averaging eight points, while Small leads the team in assists while averaging 5.6 points per game. Isaiah Pankoke-Johnson also had a 5.6 points per game average.
“Dane is a kid who does stuff that goes unnoticed. You don’t see it in a box score,” Motz said. “He might get us 10 points, but like on Saturday against Elkhorn he gives us eight assists. Cade is just a kid we really trust. He really sets the tone for us.”
The tone is also set for a big finish for both Norris teams. The boys will play top-ranked Elkhorn Mt. Michael on Saturday and both teams face Omaha Skutt next Tuesday. The girls also have a date with Elkhorn North before district play.
Maybe coach Hagerman’s motto could be good for both teams, and any others chasing a state championship in the next month and change.
“I like to say if we play together and stay together,” the veteran coach said, “that we can win together.”
Sage advice as the calendar creeps toward March.