Nose to the grindstone: Despite all the excitement, Four Winds remains focused on last goal at hand heading to Minot

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
Four Winds/Minnewaukan defeated Langdon/Edmore/Munich, 57-39, to win the Region 4 championship on March 11 at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center

The week couldn't go by slower for the Indians. After winning the Region 4 title on Thursday, the seven days counting down to when the team boards the bus for the two-ish hour trip Minot has felt like an eternity. 

After what had happened last season in making it to the tournament for it only to be canceled a day later, Four Winds' is eager to take the court at the Minot State Dome later this week. At the same time, everyone is trying to take in every moment. Seniors practiced for the final time at the high school on Tuesday and got a spectacular send-off Wednesday in front of a packed gym. 

"It's been a fun week, but it's been kind of going slow waiting for everything," senior forward Jonah Jackson said. "You just gotta enjoy it. It's going to be our final high school games."

"I'm excited, but I don't want to lose. I want to win," senior guard Jacob LaRock said. "I'm hyped and ready, but this week had been kind of going by slow." 

There's a lot going on around Fort Totten and a lot of build-up happening as well, but the Indians have remained tunnel-visioned on their final goal of this long and strange season: win state. The core of their focus in the postseason has run off of a defensive mindset, holding stable while another facest of the game is picking up.

While they have beat all of their opposition in the postseason by more than 20 points, Four Winds' defense has pulled them out of some situations where the offense stalled a bit to start. Against Langdon/Edmore/Munich in the Region 4 championship, Smith said the Indians were at their spots on offense but were hit or miss when it came to finishing early on in the game. Their defensive efforts were enough to boost them over the hump and give the offense enough time to spark and get going.

"We've been trying to stay focused on the defensive end, that's what's been carrying us," Indians head coach Rick Smith. "Even in our last game against Langdon, on offense, we weren't getting to our spots that we wanted to get to, and when that happens your defense has to hold up. When the one part of your game isn't going exactly well, the other part of that has to pick it up, and our defense has been doing that."

How to watch Four Winds/Minnewaukan at the 2021 Class B boys basketball state tournament 

TV: All quarterfinal games will be broadcasted on WDAY/WDAZ. After that, only semifinals and the champion games will be broadcasted on WDAY/WDAZ.

Radio: Four Winds games will be broadcasted on KZZY 103.5 FM 

Live feed: Follow Devils Lake Journal sports reporter Jack Williams on Twitter @jackgwilliams for live updates of the game

Tickets: All tickets must be purchased online at MSU Beaver Tickets. Single game tickets cost $20. An all session pass costs $96. There is a limit of 4 tickets per individual and all purchases are final and nonrefundable.

The Indians have been able to wear down teams through their speed on both sides of the ball. Their wheels in their transition game have forced teams on their heels early while on defense, their in-your-face style has given opposition little room to breathe. However, in games where the Indians starting five have been matched by the oppositions starting five pace-wise, Four Winds has delivered two extra punches off the bench that has given their defense the stability to work off of.

Smith has considered Jackson and LaRock the team's sixth and seventh starters instead of bench players. The duo has considered themselves as "energy players" as they look to give those on the court a boost when coming off the bench, specifically on defense. Not only have the pair given Four Winds even more faith in its defense, but give the team an edge when it comes to wearing down teams. 

"It's a spark," LaRock said when describing what bringing energy to the court means. "We want to get the crowd hyped and get the boys going. If they come out slow or don't execute right away, we try to come out and bring that spark. After that, everything gets going." 

Throughout the postseason, LaRock and Jackson's, and now freshman guard Deng Dengs', jumpstart impact off the bench has been abundant. In games where the offense took a while to get going, the duo's entrance into the game would eventually jump the offense to 18, 25 and 32 point wins in the postseason.

However, as bench players, their presence in the game is limited varying on the situation. In the region 4 championships, it wouldn't be until late in the first quarter where they would see the court for the first time, in which they would take advantage of the court time they were given. 

"We just gotta match the intensity when we get out there," LaRock said. "The starting five came out with a lot of intensity in that game, so when we came out we just had to match it. We just have to keep going with the flow and see what they're doing wrong right away and see how we can avoid that." 

Four Winds/Minnewaukan defeated Langdon/Edmore/Munich, 57-39, to win the Region 4 championship on March 11 at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center

Smith said Jackson and LaRock's emergence into the games adds to the teams' endless pressure on both sides of the ball, continued from the starting five. Smith also mentioned that Jackson and LaRock's attack off the bench goes unnoticed by opponents at first, blindsiding them in ways.

"You have guys like JaeShaun and Caelen hounding out, and all of the sudden you bring in guys like Jonah and Jacob. There's no let off the gas pedal when those guys get in," Smith said. "Opposing teams realize that getting into our bench doesn't help them, but helps us. We're just lucky to have those guys in our back pocket to throw them in there and we thrive off that."

The wear-down game is one that Four Winds has used to their advantage throughout the season. The depth, talent, and speed of the roster have left most opponents chasing the Indians. Heading to Minot, they believe there is an advantage in playing on a bigger court, but there is concern that the wear-down game may become harder due to TV timeouts.  

"Like coach Mertens and I talked today, you're dealing with a lot of TV timeout, and hard to wear out opposing teams when there are so many timeouts in the game," Smith said. "Then again, you use the big floor to your advantage and try to get those guys up and down the floor as fast as they can. We want to get the tempo in our favor and out of theirs. Where we can sub eight, nine guys and they can't, we can get up and down the floor at a faster pace." 

There has been a little more of an uptick in intensity in practice since Thursday, upping the number of shooting and running drills than in the past. More movement, more press, and more speed for the adjustment to the larger court. Speed has been a cornerstone of the Indians and they are looking to use that as a key to their attack. 

"There's a lot of excitement inside of us because we're finally at our last goal," Keja said. "It's been an exciting week. We're hyped up and ready to play." 

Four Winds is also working on perfecting its a double-edged sword on offense in senior center Bronson Walter on the post and their shooters on the outside. Walter has been able to work the paint with ease throughout the season, but his teammates are ready around him if he is unable to finish.

"We're just listening to coach and working on getting the ball into the big guy," Keja said. "If things aren't going inside, we're always on the shooting machines to be ready to hit a shot. They're always double teaming in on him, so we have to find the open shot."

While Walter does get a lot of work done in the paint, there is still a lot of faith in the Indians shooting on the outside. Junior guard Jayden Yankton has shot heavy throughout the season and senior guard JaeShaun Shaw has leaned into his speed game to finish at the rim, along with flexing his talents from deep. Even when shots don't fall on the drive, Keja and Jackson have been able to clean up from the charity stripe. 

Four Winds/Minnewaukan defeated Langdon/Edmore/Munich, 57-39, to win the Region 4 championship on March 11 at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center

"Jayden is one of the better shooters in the start and when he gets going, he can score from anywhere," Smith said. "JaeShaun is really finding his offense game and is starting to find some consistency at the 16, 17 point mark, and then you need everyone else to chip in. Keldon chipped in the regional finals and Jonah has been chipping in eight, 10 points here and there. If we can stay balanced like that, we're going to be fine." 

As the Indians continue to perfect their game on the court, they have received tremendous support off the court as well. The school received 277 tickets for the tournament and sold out before the team finished their last practice at Four Winds. Alumni have stopped by not just to offer their support, but to help the team out as much as they can.

Stevie Redfox, who was apart of the start champion team in 2016, the state runner-up team in 2017, and is Keja's first cousin, stopped by practice earlier this week to offer a helping hand on the court. LaRock's brothers, Stevie and Jaylen (JJ) LaRock, with Stevie winning state and JJ taking second, offered advice to their younger brother before taking the court this upcoming weekend. 

"They just encourage me and tell me what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong," LaRock said. "They push me to be better." 

There's a lot of family ties to the Four Winds program, from past teams and on the current team. Yankton and Walter are first cousins and Keldon has two younger brothers playing with him in Kylon and Kelson. It already means a lot for this group to make it to the start tournament and possibly win the whole thing, but for Keldon, there's an extra element of what winning it all would mean with his brothers right behind him.

"It would mean a lot to show them what I do on the court, so they can pick it up and do it when they come up," Keja said. "My little brother is probably going to be the next point guard for the school, so I want to show him how the play the position the best way I can." 

Four Winds/Minnewaukan faces Shiloh Chrisitan Thursday, March 18 at the Minot State Dome at 6:30 p.m. in NDHSAA Class B boys basketball state tournament quarterfinals.

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