'They were in it until the end': Devils Lake falls one shot short against Valley City

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
Devils Lake boys basketball lost to Valley City, 62-59, Jan. 22 at Devils Lake High School.

EDC. The abbreviation is commonly associated with the Eastern Dakota Conference, the grouping the Firebirds are playing in strictly this season. However, Firebirds head coach Derek Gathman has preached to his team that the abbreviation means Every Day Counts. It's one of the many pieces that the Firebirds are using in their overall goal of learning how to win.

A group that is mostly new to the varsity scene is learning the game in and game out to put 36 minutes together to finish on top...however, it hasn't come easy. Still looking for their first win of the season coming into Saturday's game, the Firebirds went the distance against Valley City, a team who is in a similar position as them. Valley City would pull ahead early and stay ahead until the final buzzer, but Devils Lake clawed, and clawed, and clawed at the lead.

The Firebirds would not go away. Even with less than five seconds left, after the Hi-Liners missed a free throw to ice the game, Devils Lake still had one more chance. But throughout the night it seemed as if were always one step off. A run to pull them within a point would see Valley City pull forward, but then Devils Lake would come back, but then Valley City would pull away again. 

Devils Lake (0-8) was right there but struggled to make that extra step against Valley City (3-9, 2-8 EDC). In the final seconds, a 3-point heave from the corner, hoping to send the game to overtime, would hit the side of the backboard and hand the Firebirds a 62-59 loss. 

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"I was proud of how they played at the end there," Gathman said. "I just told them if we put 36 minutes together, we get a win, and that's hard for young kids and kids playing varsity for the first time to understand, and that every possession matters. They're learning that and they're learning that the hard way. They didn't give up and they were in it until the end. Unfortunately, we couldn't make some plays." 

Devils Lake was never out of it, but early on in the first half, it was looking like Valley City was going to cruise to a victory. Struggling to hold onto the ball and limit senior guard Drew Zaun, who would drain 10 of his 21 points on the night in the first half. The slump saw the Hi-Liners go up 26-8, forcing the Firebirds to take a different approach. Where Devils Lake needed to clean up couldn't really be written on a whiteboard, but needed to be built up mentally. Gathman said his team was playing scared early on.

 "They were playing afraid and timid, and you can't do that against a team that's going to pressure you," Gathman said. "Valley City does a good job of that and they play their butts off. I thought for those first 10 minutes of the game that they were the only ones making plays. I told them [Devils Lake] that I saw a bunch of guys in blue that were outworking them and then it switched." 

The wake-up call hit the Firebirds like ice water. After the timeout, the Firebirds would outscore the Hi-Liners 13-3 through the end of the half, turning an 18 point deficit into eight by halftime. It was a taste of the rest of the game where the Firebirds would go on a red hot streak, followed a small run by the Hi-Liners to keep them ahead by one to two possessions. The effort to keep Devils Lake going was lead by junior guard Ben Heilman and freshman guard Drew Hofstad.

The pair steamed ahead in the second half, with Heilman draining 11 points in the half to finish with a team-high 16 in the game. He led the free-throw effort as well, shooting 3-7 on the night. Hofstad would be a force in the field, downing all 11 of his points in the half, including one of the Firebirds' 3-pointers. The aggressive attack charged the Firebirds' offense when they needed it and constantly put them in striking distance of a lead.

"We had a lot more energy and were attacking the rim a little more," Gathman said. "There was a lot less hesitation and more thinking. We're not good thinkers right now, it's not our strong suit, and we need to go play hard. The second half was a lot better that way and it's on us [the coaches] to put them in better situations."

That charge spread up and down the Firebirds bench to just about everyone. The passion could be seen on the players through cheering the loudest out of a gym that was at 50 percent capacity to showing frustration when something did go Devils Lake's way. After freshman forward Jackson Baeth would commit a foul, he'd head back to the bench, slamming down a water bottle and pushing a chair aside, before Gathman was able to talk him down. And it wasn't just the players getting tense as a Devils Lake assistant coach would break a whiteboard after an attempted charging draw, in favor of the Firebirds, was not called. 

It was passionate and competitive energy that the Firebirds were using to their advantage, and just about every player had their chance to take that out on the court. Unlike most teams, Devils Lake treats their substitutions like hockey changes where they can switch all five guys up for a fresh group on the court. While young, it's an edge the team brings onto the court where every player is at a similar skill level. 

"One through 11 we have kids that are very similar skill-wise and we approach it like who's going to work hard," Gathman said. "If you're not going to work hard, you're not playing, and it's helpful with the motivation. I thought they all played hard, so I think it's helpful that we can get them in shifts and play them fresh to be effective." 

Devils Lake ran two groups throughout the entire game, which stood tall on offense but began to fall off on defense towards the end. Experience in tight game situations and fatigue began to catch up with the Firebirds' second grouping, who carried a lot of the scoring in the second half and began to rack up the fouls. While their offensive abilities kept Devils Lake above water late in the game, Valley City went to the line 13 times in the second half, seeing Zaun lead the shooting effort with 3-6 free throw accuracy in the second half. 

It's another piece of the puzzle of learning how to win. This is the first game this season that the Firebirds were not chasing by a wide margin. Devils Lake did fall to Fargo South by only three earlier in the season, but the Firebirds made a large comeback off of a 3-point shooting to get there. Gathman knows that this finish may sting a little more and that guys like Hofstad, are "pissed a themselves" that they didn't hit that shot. However, in the long run, the close finish might do more good than harm. 

"I know that they are upset because they are tough kids and winners, and don't like to lose," Gathman said. "Those are the kind of things that stick in your head. They're going to work to get better at that and that's what I'm looking for this season. We don't want to be ok with losing and that it hurts. That's where we are at."

Moving deeper into their schedule, Devils Lake is now working their way up the standings in the teams they face. Tuesday they are on the road against No. 1 West Fargo and after facing Wahpeton in about a week, they are on the road again in West Fargo against No. 2 West Fargo Sheyenne. In having heaver competition ahead, the Firebirds are still working to win, but know that improving every day is going to get them there. 

"Ultimately, we just need to get better every game," Gathman said. "If we go 0-17 in the EDC and get that play-in game, we can win that play-in game, get to the EDC tournament and make something happen. We can win no games in the regular season and still go to state. We just have to keep getting better and the tough thing is going to be that we are mentally ok and not getting down if we lose." 

Jack Williams covers Lake Region sports and general news for the Devils Lake Journal. Contact him via email at JGWilliams1@gannett.com, on Twitter @jackgwilliams, or phone at 701-662-2127.

Valley City 62, Devils Lake 59 

Valley City - 29, 33 - 62 

Devils Lake - 21, 38 - 59 

Valley City (3-9, 2-8) -- Zaun 6 3-6 21, Berntson 1 4-4 12, Eggermont 3 2-4 8, Burchill 1 0-1 6, Fischer 1 0-0 5, Diegel 2 1-4 5, Bitz 3 4-2 8, Jacobson 0 1-2 1. Totals 18 11-21 62. 

Devils Lake (0-8, 0-8) -- Heilman 5 3-7 16, D. Hofstad 4 0-0 11, H. Hofstad 4 2-2 10, Gefron 3 1-2 7, Enget 2 0-1 4, Newton 2 0-0 4, Bryce-Volk 0 0-0 3, Meyer 1 0-0 2, Schneider 1 0-0 2. Totals 22 6-12 59. 

3-pointes: Valley City 5 (Zaun 2, Brentson 2, Fischer 1). Devils Lake 3 (Heilman 1, D. Hofstad 1, Bryce-Volk 1).