'There's nothing easy left': L/E/M avoids North Star upset, punches ticket to first Region 4 title game since 2018
Sitting atop the region and state standings, the Cardinals know that there's a larger target on their backs. Now with games coming down to win or go home, teams now have more of a reason to go after the Cardinals beyond an upset.
Late in the season, the Bearcats have been looking to make themselves a Region 4 giant slayer of sorts. They would blast New Rockford-Sheyenne, the No. 2 seed out of District 7, at the end of the regular season and would edge them out again in double overtime in regional quarterfinals. After one half against Langdon/Edmore/Munich on Tuesday in semifinals, it was looking like North Star was going to bring down yet another giant.
North Star had clogged up the paint on both ends, shutting down L/E/M's big three in seniors guard Simon Romfo, forward Grant Romfo, and center Jagger Worley. The trio would combine for only nine points in the first half, struggling to break the Bearcats press. On the other end, senior forward Ben Wagenman would roll off his height and strength advantage for nine first half points, putting the Bearcats up 21-13 at the half.
"Focus. That was it," Cardinals head coach Andy Haaven said. "This is the defense that we play and it was just a matter of wanting to do it. We had a little talk about that at halftime and whoever wanted to do it just needed to do it. They buckled down because they want that game on Thursday."
The defense would not just rise for the Cardinals but would dominate North Star as they would limit the Bearcats to just nine points in the second half, eventually putting L/E/M in the driver's seat to propel them to a 40-30 win over North Star. The victory sends the Cardinals to the Region 4 championship on Thursday at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center, their first appearance in the title game since 2018.
"It was just one of those grind it out games and that's what happens when you get to tournaments," Haaven said. "There isn't anything easy left and we knew that going into yesterday's game. These guys are well coached and we know each other, so we knew that they were going to make things difficult for us."
The Bearcats pounced on the Cardinals early, adding a little more hesitation to L/E/M's defensive attack. Haaven said that the Cardinals played a little tentative overall in the first half, something that isn't normal for this team. North Star keyed heavy into Simon and Grant, as senior forward Hayden Hagler would be all over one of the two when they drove to the net.
While the Romfo's had little breathing room, Worley and the rest of the roster did have a little more room to work. The focus then became opening up the court so L/E/M could get its big 3 scoring. Out of halftime, that adjustment would prove to be key as Grant would down 11 points, Simon eight, and Worley five in the second half. By the final buzzer, Grant would lead the overall effort with 15 points on the night.
"We knew that our defense was doing a good job, we just had to set more screens and play more physical," Worley said. "We needed to finish through contact, get our open looks, and hit them."
L/E/M has also found success in moving the ball beyond its big three in the postseason. Sophomore guard Markus Kingzett provided a lift for the Cardinals early, driving the paint and getting up shots when L/E/M's big three was battling North Star's press. His efforts would give the Cardinals boosts in the first and second halves, eventually leading to six points on the night.
L/E/M's depth efforts may not show up on the scorecard but have played a major role in the team's success on defense. Kingzett, sophomore guard Gage Goodman, and freshman guard Rayce Worley, while young, have continued to push the Cardinals' depth deeper throughout the season through their own individual growths.
"Markus has had a really aggressive look at the rim and I think Rayce Worley has too," Haaven said. "Those kids are natural scorers, but they're just inexperienced. Markus had a little trouble finishing tonight, but he was doing the right things in finishing to the rim. He is a slender kid, so he's not used to all the contact, but that's ok. He'll pick up some weight over the next few years and he'll be fine."
The turnaround victory for the Cardinals is a big one, not just for the team in general, but it's three seniors that have had an unforgettable impact on the program this season. Grant, Simon, and Jagger's lifelong connection since first playing with each other eight, seven years ago has made L/E/M one of the most successful team's in the state this season.
L/E/M's big three has been nearly impenetrable this season, only seeing the Cardinals drop three games. Grant and Simon have both passed the 1000 point mark and have scorched teams on offense in and around the arc. Jagger has given L/E/M a height advantage on the post and shows that he can capitalize further away from the net.
"We just know where we're going to be on the court," Worley said. "We've got such strong chemistry because we've been playing 3-on-3 tournaments since we were fourth-graders. We're all really good friends and it's just fun to share the court with them."
The bond created by Simon, Grant and Jagger is a special one that they are hoping will spread to their teammates come of the end of the season. The three are L/E/M's only losses of the season as they will be returning its entire roster outside of them. Their time as Cardinals may be coming to a close, but all three are continuing their athletic careers into the college. The Romfo's will be playing football, Grant at North Dakota State and Simon at North Dakota, and Jagger will be playing basketball at Lake Region State.
It helps with the overall team chemistry that we've played together for so long," Worley said. "We can just get out and play the game we want, and boost those young guys to continue on the winning tradition here."
For North Star, they finis their season at 13-10. They will graduate All-District 8 selections in Hayden Hagler, Wagenman, along with Thomas Nikolaisen, Caleb Svir, Tristen Crist, Tyler Lloyd. They will be returning their top scorer in Dane Hagler, starter Parker Simon and Drew Nicholas, who has been a helping hand off the bench. It might look like a hard hit for North Star, but the Bearcats are still young and still very deep number wise.
Following a day off Wednesday, L/E/M faces it's biggest challenge of the year in No. 1 Four Winds/Minnewaukan in the title game, a team that has only picked up momentum going deeper into the season. In their last meeting, the Indians dispatched the Cardinals by 25. Similar to their game against the Bearcats, and the game before, L/E/M knows nothing is going to come easy and haven't shifted focus with an opponent change.
"It doesn't matter who we play on Thursday, it's going to be a hard fought game," Haaven said. "It's going to be a good opponent and in the postseason anything can happen. We're excited to be in that game and these guys are used to winning. They've had good baseball and football seasons, and want to win. We just have to rely on the things we've learned throughout the season and get after it."
Langdon/Edmore/Munich 40, North Star 30
Langdon/Edmore/Munich - 7, 6,12, 15 - 40
North Star - 8, 13, 1, 8 - 30
Langdon/Edmore/Munich -- G. Romfo 5 5-5 15, S. Romfo 4 2-2 10, J. Worley 4 1-1 9, Kingzett 2 2-3 6. Totals 15 10-11 40.
North Star -- Wagenman 5 1-1 11, P. Simon 2 5-6 9, D. Hagler 3 0-0 6, H. Hagler 1 0-0 2, K. Simon 1 0-0 2. Totals 12 6-7 30
3-pointers: Langdon/Edmore/Munich 0, North Star 0.