Firebirds spark winning streak as they win second straight over Fargo South
It hasn't been the most ideal of seasons for the Firebirds. Coming into this season with a very young and varsity-new roster, they knew wins weren't going to come easy. With Grant Nelson gone, the Firebirds were basically starting from scratch.
Starting off the season 0-13, losing out close contests to Fargo South and Valley City, it could've been easy to quit, but the Firebirds coaching staff told their team to be patient. The pieces were coming together, but they just needed to keep chopping at the bit for the wins to come in. They've remained patient and they are starting to be rewarded.
"We've just been preaching patience all year long," Firebirds head coach Derek Gathman said. "We knew it was going to be a struggle this year not having summer ball and having a bunch of kids that have never played varsity before. 15 games into the season we're starting to figure things out and what works well, and it's showing."
The mentality of the Firebirds to not quit on the season has now propelled them to back-to-back wins, defeating Grand Forks Central on Tuesday and Friday blasting past Fargo South, 79-64. Devils Lake's combat of the Bruins defense is what made the difference in the game as the collaborative effort turned the tables from their last meeting with Fargo South.
"We didn't play afraid," Gathman said. "They threw a bunch of different defenses at us and every time they switched within our possessions, we figured it out and we attacked. I can't pick out a single kid that played really well because they all attacked and played really well. We're playing really well and we just needed to click."
In their first meeting, the press intimidated the Firebirds, leading to the narrow loss. However, one lesson they took away from that matchup was they were able to bet the aggressive press, as they were on the comeback trail in the second half. Devils Lake came into Friday's game and leaned into the Bruins press, seeing Fargo South foul heavy in the first half and the Firebirds offense heat up.
Junior guard Ben Heilman, who's been a scoring force for the Firebirds all season, went off for a team-high 22 points, shooting nine from 2-point field goal range and 4-8 from the line. Freshman guard Drew Hofstad would follow closely with 16 points, draining a team-high three 3-pointers. His brother, junior Hayden Hofstad, would be right behind him in scoring with 14.
"We had the confidence this game knowing that we could beat their defense," Gathman said. "The last time we saw them was the first time we saw a really crazy press like that and we just didn't handle it well. Knowing that we could beat it, which we did in the second half of that game, was huge."
The drive and kick sparked the 3-point shooting for the Hofstad brothers. The duo had been waiting for the kick and it came Friday night in numbers. Hayden continued his steady pace on the scoring end, but the night was big for Drew as the performance elevated him as a scoring threat for the Firebirds.
While Hofstad's ran the perimeter shooting, Heilman was going headfirst into the paint and finishing strong. The junior has shown new hesitation driving up against the Bruins press, even with a leg brace still on after tearing his ACL last season. He's still making sure he stays healthy as he was being stretched out by a trainer on the sideline at one point, but is playing at near 100 percent. Even to his coaches, there isn't too much fear that he may hurt himself again.
"He's a tough kid," Gathman said. "After he tore his ACL last spring, he worked harder than any other kid I've seen in rehab. He's not even a full year off of ACL surgery and is playing with such toughness. There is no concern because I know how tough he is, and we need him to be that kind of player. He played a really good game and did a lot of things we needed."
On the ground game, junior guard Keauno Newton kept pace with the Bruins' faster pace of play on both ends of the court. Newton would throw down 12 points of his own and would limit Fargo South's Abubakarr Fullah to one point in the second half from 15 in the first. Newton's speed on offense and jump under the net has made him a valuable piece to the Firebirds guard effort when there isn't too much height.
The Firebirds stars continued to progress, but Devils Lake got a lift from its double-rostered guys in sophomores forwards Sam Enget and Aiden Bryce-Volk. Enget filled in a forward spot in the starting five and played a role in the Firebirds transition game. Bryce-Volk came off the bench to down seven points, off two 2-point field goals, and a 3-pointer. In being guys who have been playing with two different teams this season, Gathman said they have started to settle into their roles on the varsity squad.
"They're figuring out their role and what they can be good at," Gathman said. "Sammy is such a smart player and is always in the right position. He plays the post as anyone and he's 5'11. Aiden is so quick and can handle those quick guards that way. He's starting to get confidence in himself too."
As cliche as it may sound, confidence has been key for the Firebirds recently and they are heating up at the right time. Now dispatching the No. 5 seed in the EDC standings, Devils Lake will now have a swing at the No. 4 seed in Fargo Shanley and wrap up the season on Thursday against Grand Forks Red River.
The momentum is now there, but the goal of never giving up is still very much there. The team talked about how they could lose every game in the regular season and still end up winning state. The Firebirds want to win, but at the end of the day, they want to leave each gym knowing that they've played their best basketball. As of late, that feeling of satisfaction hasn't been hard to find.
"We still want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season and I think we are," Gathman said. "I think there's a lot of teams in the middle of the pack that won't want to see us in that play-in game. I just want our kids to be playing competitive, and their best, basketball at the end of the season."
Devils Lake 79, Fargo South 64
Devils Lake - 42, 37 - 79
Fargo South - 36, 28 - 64
Devils Lake (2-13, 2-13) -- Heilman 9 4-8 22, D. Hofstad 2 3-3 16, H. Hofstad 5 1-2 14, Newton 5 2-2 12, Bryce-Volk 2 0-0 7, Baeth 3 0-0 6, Enget 1 0-0 2. Totals 27 10-15 79.
Fargo South (8-12, 8-11) -- Enock 4 6-6 17, Fullah 5 3-4 16, Arechigo 3 0-1 12, Saydee 2 1-5 5, McGill 1 0-0 5, Kessel 0 4-4 4, Lacher 1 0-0 2, Steckler 1 0-0 2, Jones 1-2 1. Totals 17 15-22 64.
3-pointers: Devils Lake 5 (D. Hofstad 3, H. Hofstad 1, Bryce-Volk 1). Fargo South 5 (Arechigo 2, Enock 1, Fullah 1, Mcgill 1).