'We knew it was going to be a boxing match': Chargers defense stands tall as Nelson County bests Benson County
There are a lot of firsts for the Chargers this season. The first game, first win, first loss, and possibly a first rivalry? The Nelson County co-op between Lakota and Dakota Prairie has been going for years in football but has expanded to volleyball and girls basketball this school year.
The Chargers have had a pretty good first season, hanging around a .500 record, winning the games they were expected to win. Thursday night Nelson County made the hour drive, if you're leaving from Lakota, straight west on Highway 2 to Leeds taking on Benson County, a team that was still gunning for a top 3 seed in the upcoming district tournament.
On paper, it would look like the Chargers and Wildcats would be geographical rivals, as Devils Lake splits the two counties, operating as co-ops, but the history isn't there. However, with the district seeding on the line and the Wildcats having a target on their back as a favorite to win the upcoming tournament, the brewings of the Battle of Highway 2 might just have started to heat up.
Nelson County (8-6, 3-2) would limit Benson County's (9-5, 2-3) offensive charge to upset the Wildcats, 47-42, to take the No. 3 seed in the upcoming tournament. It's the Chargers' third straight win and another complete effort end to end according to Chargers head coach Gus Kueber.
"I know a lot of coaches say this, but it was a great team win," Kueber said. "The bench really stayed into it, and it was a good, loud Class B atmosphere. You gotta give credit to Benson County. They came out fighting in that second half when we had a decent-sized lead, and you knew that was coming."
Before the game, Kueber talked to his team and told them that the matchup was going to be like a boxing match. They were going them here and there, but if they weathered the storm to the final bell, the Chargers were going to come out successful. 12 rounds were pressed down to four quarters on the hardwood, with both squads throwing everything that had onto the court.
Nelson County would finish with the higher score in the end, but their strong suit came on defense inside the paint. Benson County junior guard Quinn Neppl, who's been a constant scoring force for the Wildcats this season, was plugged up in the paint throughout the game, having a double or triple guard put on her. While she would down a team-high 19 points, the Chargers shut her down for three of four quarters.
But it wasn't just Neppl that the Nelson County defense keyed into. Junior guard Desidy Schwanke, who is another force on offense for the Wildcats, struggled to drive to the net as she ran into Chargers in the lane. She would finish with 13 points, with a little under half of them coming at the line.
"When you play Benson County you know Quinn Neppl is probably in one of the best players not in the region, but the state," Kueber said. "We knew we were going to have our hands full there and Marit Ellingson did a hell of job staying on here and moving around man to man. We're not expected to stop her, but to contain her and hold her under her average. Same on our zone defense, we were on her and Schwanke the whole time."
The defensive effort was driven by the Chargers trio, whose defensive press has helped them to a hot streak these past three games: junior guards Marit Ellingson, Paytan Lippert, and Nora Johnson. The Wildcats did counter their press evenly when the Chargers were attacking, but the Nelson County trio has been non-stop. The three would also shoot 100 percent at the line, going 5-5 combined.
"We try to stick to the same thing where we focus on our conditioning in practice, and even our girls were getting a little tired down there in the end," Kueber said. "It wasn't just an individual person here and there. It was an all-around team effort and we really preach to the girls on the bench, to stay involved. If you see something on the court, yell it out to the girls and know that you're here for them."
Nelson County's bench was verbal even before its game started. They sat down in the audience to watch the end of the JV game, which came down to one possession and were coaching their peers on. They all bring the energy, especially freshman forward Riley Lippert, who didn't see the court Thursday, but whose presence was known throughout the entire game.
The encouragement on the bench was the loudest on the Chargers offensive conversions. One player that Nelson County looked to use as a weapon was junior center Hollie Emory under the net. The center ran the putback game under the net in the fourth quarter, racking up six points from the field and two more at the line. She offered the size advantage that gave the Chargers the edge.
However, the Wildcats noticed Emory's rise late in the game and would find a way to get her out of it, eventually sending her to the bench after drawing the fifth foul. With her presence gone heading into the final stretch, junior guard Cadence Schwind and sophomore forward Rylan Parsely gave Nelson County the lift they needed under the net.
"We have confidence in our bench," Kueber said. "We had a good, balanced team effort out there and the girls understood what scheme was and what we needed to take care of in not letting Quinn or Desdy get open looks today."
Emory wasn't the first Charger to fall into foul trouble and needing a lift from the bench. Senior forward Kylee Baumgarn, who knocked down 27 points in Nelson County's last game, picked up three fouls early, forcing her to sit. Kuber said Johnson took over Baumgarn's role on the scoring front, finishing with a team-high 12 points.
Nelson County has been charged up these past two games, but on the other bench, the Wildcats are looking to slow things down. Benson County has played four times over the past week, and according to Wildcats head coach Kent Neppl, the fatigue is starting to catch up to them.
"Fatigue was involved. I know that for a fact," Neppl said. "It wearing on these kids. Their speeds not there like it was earlier in the season and we've slowed down a lot in my opinion. It's not too often that I don't see Quinn or Des finish at the rim, and seeing them not finish there tells me it's fatigue. Those two are pretty consistent at the rim."
The Chargers came out shooting and the Wildcats shots weren't falling. The setback knocked Benson County back, but their defensive presence late in the game allowed them to pull within a possession of Nelson County's lead. Neppl would follow a layup with a 3-ball late in the third quarter to make things interesting. In the fourth, the Wildcats limited the Chargers in the paint defensively, but couldn't hit the shots they needed.
"Our defense stepped up and got some big stops in that run," Neppl said. "Once the pressure is there and we get those stops, that's what we need. If we play good defense, it's going to create good offense. We need to move the ball and create good offense to finish and we had plenty of looks to finish, but we didn't quite finish them."
The Wildcats were a tired squad, that still fought from start to finish, but are in need of a recharge, physically and mentally. Emotions were already high before the game as Neppl moved the matchup from Maddock to Leeds to honor senior center Kearyn Nelsen. As the Wildcats' lone departure, teammates were visibly emotional as the PA announcer asked Nelsen to step to center court to be honored.
Neppl said that emotions were even high after the game and the Wildcats need to slow things down in order to get back to where they were. The team's schedule is still grinding away as they are at Napoleon/Gackle-Streeter Saturday and Rolette/Wolford on Monday before they have three days off.
In order to move things at a slower pace and eventually build-up, the Wildcats are following Thursday's game with a light practice Friday and kicking back to watch the boy's team play St. John that night. Benson County has big expectations, snapping Landon/Edmore/Munich's winning streak earlier this season and leading the district throughout the season, but in order to avoid more fatigue, they are focused at taking one game at a time.
"We're going to take it one game at a time," Neppl said. "Every team brings their best game against us because we're supposed to be a good team, and you have a team full of juniors who've been starting as a freshman. We've got a pretty veteran team here, and we've just got to start finishing.
Nelson County 47, Benson County 42
Nelson County - 11, 18, 8, 10 - 47
Benson County - 8, 9, 13, 12 - 42
Nelson County (8-6, 3-2) -- Ellingson 3 1-1 13, Johnson 4 4-4 12, Emery 5 2-2 12, Baumgarn 1 2-2 7, P. Lippert 0 0-0 3. Totals 13 9-10 47
Benson County (9-5, 2-3) -- Neppl 5 0-1 19, Schwanke 2 6-8 13, Williams 2 2-7 6, Nelsen 2 0-0 4. Totals 11 8-16 42
3-pointers: Nelson County 4 (Ellingson 2, P.Lippert 1, Baumgarn 1). Benson County 4 (Neppl 3, Schwanke 1).