After both the Grand Island Central Catholic boys and girls teams advanced to the 2020 NSAA state basketball tournament — and with core groups returning on both sides — expectations were high when the season tipped off.
And, so far, neither team has disappointed.
The boys, fresh off a Class C-2 title game appearance last year, have jumped to a 5-0 start after Tuesday night’s 69-34 win over Blue Hill. Likewise, the girls sport a 6-0 record that includes a 68-59 win over Class A, No. 10 North Platte last Saturday.
Both coaches — Tino Martinez and Stacia Rice — have been satisfied but not surprised by how their teams are playing. They also know that they hope to keep playing and that bigger tests loom.
“I think Saturday at North Platte might have been the best effort we have had all season,” Martinez said. “Our energy was at a really high level.
“We probably didn’t play as well on Friday night (against Columbus Scotus) and after the game we got in the film room and before our practice Saturday, our seniors had got our guys together and they were ready to go.”
Rice feels her group feeds off each other as well.
“We just have a good group of girls that play well together,” the coach said. “They are good students, they like each other and I think overall, we are playing with more confidence that we have in the past.”
The Class C-2, top-ranked Crusader boys are likely wearing down on their opponents who have to feel like they have been playing the same team over and over for more than four seasons, sometimes it may even seem like more.
Russ Martinez (10.5 points, 3.5 assists) is a four-year starter and fellow senior Koby Bales, “would be if he wouldn’t have been injured.” Bales is scoring eight points per outing, but also adds 5.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
Add in junior Isaac Herbek (8 points, 4 rebounds, 3.8 assists) as a three-year starter and fellow junior Marcus Lowery, who leads the team with 14.8 points per game and played heavily as a freshman, and coach Martinez is working with an experienced group.
“A lot of those guys have really matured as leaders for us,” he said. “The other thing we have, though, is our seniors that come off the bench. They are just invaluable guys to our team. We improve when we sub.”
Those two seniors — Tanner Turek and Brayden Wenzel — have played the spark role for the past two seasons for the Crusaders.
Turek, a dead-eye 3-point shooter, averages just over six points per game. Wenzel, a sort of Swiss Army knife, gives 1.5 points, and 1.8 assists, steals and rebounds per game and is “maybe our best defender,” Martinez notes.
“Those guys have just always accepted their role with what we do,” the coach said. “They’d maybe be two or three year starters anywhere else. We might have some games where we need to play those guys 20-22 minutes.”
Martinez thinks the Crusaders have also bolstered their inside game with 6-8 and 6-9 brothers Gil and Dai Jengmer, who the coach said took full advantage of quarantine to improve their bodies physically.
Dai, a senior, averages 12 points and six rebounds per game. Gil, a junior, is averaging 4.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.
“Those two really took it on themselves to get better bodies. They lost some bad weight and put on some good muscle just working out in their garage,” Martinez said.
The Crusaders get to further grade themselves with a pair of ranked matchups before the holiday break this weekend as they face Class C-1, No. 5 Lincoln Christian at home on Friday before facing Class B, No. 3 Omaha Skutt in the Tom Dinsdale Holiday Classic at Hastings College on Saturday.
“Just looking at both of those teams, they’ll be great challenges for us,” coach Martinez said. “Lincoln Christian is playing really well together as a group. And, Skutt will be a fun test for us. They are a little more used to games like Saturday as opposed to what we do. So it’s a game that should really help us.”
Coach Rice’s girls team turned heads over the weekend with the previously mentioned North Platte win. The Bulldogs were the 5th seed in last year’s Class A state tournament and are still ranked 10th in this weeks coaches poll. It earned the Crusaders a four spot jump in the Class C-1 poll to fourth this week.
“We have had players ready to step up in every game for us this year,” coach Rice said. “Jenna (Heidelk) stepped up for us with big free throws against Scotus, and Chloe (Cloud) played her best game against North Platte.
“We just can’t take anything for granted this year. You never know when it might get taken away from us, so we are just going to focus on our best effort each time out and not look ahead to the next game on our schedule.”
Coach Rice’s team can come at you in waves and go big or small, which will give many of the teams on her schedule difficulty.
Her daughter, Rylie, leads the team with an 18.4 points per game average. Sophomore Lucy Ghaifan averages 9.6 points and 7.2 rebounds with Heidelk and Cloud both at 8.4 points per game. Senior Lexi Mudloff — a Hastings College softball recruit — adds 3.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest.
“I just feel like we have a really athletic lineup all the way across the board,” coach Rice said. “By the end of the year, people will realize that Chloe and Lucy might be two of the best posts in the state. And, Rylie has really worked hard on her game, because we know she is going to get face guarded just about every time we play.”
When coach Rice turns to her bench, the Crusaders get a little faster. Seniors Reagan Gellatly, Grace Herbek and junior Alyssa Wilson allow the GICC defense to pressure the ball a little bit more while playing the smaller line up.
“Those girls have done a great job of stepping up in their roles and I like that when we can bring in those girls and go smaller and bring a little more ball pressure,” Rice said.
After making a trip to the Class C-2 tournament a season ago, but losing to Ponca in the first round, the Crusaders hope to take the next step with a return in March. Coach Rice knows it won’t be easy.
“Class C-1 is just loaded with great teams this year,” she said. “Even if you get a top-eight seed for a district final, I don’t think that’s going to mean much. There are so many good teams.”