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Central boys red hot entering playoffs

The hottest team in the Dunn-St. Croix Conference over the final three weeks of the regular season was the St. Croix Central boys basketball team.

The Panthers finished the season with five straight conference wins. The regular season finale came on Friday, when the Panthers barged past Colfax, 66-53.

The late run at the end of the season raises the Panthers' record to the .500 level in conference play. They had been 4-9 in the D-SC until their surge in February.

Central coach Mike Fern said the turning point for his team was the Feb. 9 win over conference champion Mondovi. The Panthers haven't lost since then.

"Once we beat Mondovi it changed our whole season as far as confidence," he said. "We proved we're the second or third best team (in the conference) right now."

The win on Friday is a great example of the change in the Panthers. They recognized the weaknesses in Colfax's team and went after them.

"I think Colfax's weakness is inside, so that's where we decided to attack," Fern said.

That resulted in David Butler scoring 19 points and Joe Simon scoring 10 points. Butler and Cody Olson shared the team lead in rebounds with eight.

Balanced scoring continues to be a strength for the Panthers. Guards Kyle Cress and Luke Brown also scored in double figures, with Cress scoring 15 points and Brown scoring 12 points. Brown led the team with six assists and Cress' three steals led the team.

There was a noticeable absence in the Panthers' lineup on Friday. Junior forward Jonathan Stephens and his family moved out of the school district last week. This is a blow to the Panther basketball, football and track programs. Stephens was a D-SC sprint champion in track and he was making rapid improvement in basketball. He was one of the Panthers' best defensive players. His offensive skills were quite raw at the beginning of the season, but he'd worked hard to be able to contribute more at the offensive end of the court.

On Tuesday the Panthers were scheduled to begin WIAA Division 3 tournament play. The Panthers were seeded fourth in the region, giving them a home game against Webster on Tuesday in the opening round of the tournament.

If the Panthers were winners on Tuesday, they will likely be playing at Grantsburg this Thursday. The Pirates were the top seed in the region. Central's players are familiar with Grantsburg, because these two team scrimmaged before the season. Fern said he is confident that, if the Panthers get the chance to face Grantsburg, they'll be able to give the Pirates a battle.

Fern said one of the things that will help the Panthers in the playoffs is the depth in the D-SC this season.

"I thought our conference, top to bottom, was pretty balanced. Some years you have cupcakes on your schedule. I didn't feel that way about any of the teams we played," Fern said.

Dave Newman
Dave Newman has been the sports editor at the New Richmond News since 1988. He has covered the action in the Middle Border Conference, Dunn-St. Croix Conference and Big Rivers Conference for nearly 30 years.
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