There's a big difference between being in football shape and being in basketball shape.
The St. Croix Central boys basketball players are experts on the subject. They've had to make a rapid transition from their fall sport to basketball, but by the end of last week, the Panthers were looking like they'd found their basketball legs.
Last week started with the Panthers losing to Ellsworth, 63-55. It was during Friday's game that the Panthers really started transitioning into true basketball shape. The Panthers broke a 16-16 tie with New Richmond by scoring the final 13 points of the first half. The Panthers had a couple shaky moments in the second half, but never gave up the lead, in a 62-50 win at New Richmond.
Having to play on back-to-back nights might have been what the Panthers needed to keep extending their basketball conditioning. The Panthers went to St. Croix Falls on Saturday and scored a 55-48 non-conference win.
The signs that the Panthers are finding their way really began to show in Friday's win. The Panthers used balanced scoring to build the lead, with seven players reaching the scoring column in the first half. The Panthers' athleticism took a toll on New Richmond, mainly through foul trouble. Those fouls led to Central shooting 34 free throws in the game. Peyton Nogal and Will Soderberg spent the most time at the line. Nogal was 12-17 on his free throws and Soderberg went 6-6. That helped them finish as Central's leading scorers, Nogal finishing with 24 points and Soderberg with 10 points.
One player who drew the attention of the Panther coaches in Friday's game was junior guard Brett Mousel, who was active at both ends of the court.
"Brett's done an excellent job," said Central coach Zach Turpin. "He's starting to scratch the surface. I hope he becomes that third scorer for us."
Turpin said the Panthers are still in the process of getting healthy. They were dealt one piece of bad news last Tuesday. That was Joe Hueg's last game of the season. He'll need surgery for a shoulder injury suffered during football. Collin Nelson is also dealing with a bad shoulder and Soderberg missed most of the football season with a broken hip.
"I don't know if any of them are healthy yet," Turpin said of the football players who had to make the quick transition to basketball. "I feel we're getting closer and closer each week."
On Saturday, St. Croix Falls sat in a 2-3 zone, daring the Panthers to shoot from the outside. The Panthers didn't have to be asked twice. They hit 10 three-pointers. That helped Central maintain a solid lead through most of the game. Central led 26-18 at halftime and the lead got up to 12 points in the second half.
"The kids played extremely hard. The defense was excellent," Turpin said.
Nogal scored 18 points to lead the Panthers and Soderberg scored 17. They combined for eight of the Panthers' three-pointers.
The one setback during the week came last Tuesday in a 63-55 loss to Ellsworth. Ellsworth has an outstanding trio of scorers in Logan Benson, Alex Motley and Drake Flom. They combined for 52 of Ellsworth's points in Tuesday's game.
Central used tough defense to keep the game close, but Ellsworth used strong rebounding to damage Central's chances. Ellsworth finished with 19 second chance points from aggressive offensive rebounding.
Central's shooting showed some rust in this game, but more players tried to step up to take on the scoring role. Mousel led the team with 11 points and Nogal finished with 10. Mike Steinmetz scored nine points and Nelson added eight points.
The Panthers will be back on their home court this Thursday. This will be a non-conference game and it should provide an excellent challenge, with the Elk Mound Mounders coming in for a visit.