by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Zimmerman High School can cross one huge item off its to-do list.
The eight-year-old school has its first state team qualifier as the Thunder boys basketball team completed its dominant run through Section 5AA with a 70-57 conquest of Watetown-Mayer on Friday evening at St. Cloud State.
“They had a goal in mind and nothing was going to stop them,” said Thunder coach Ben Kvidt, whose team won by 45, 17, 22 and 13 points.
“We we are super proud. This has been our goal since the beginning of the year.” said junior center Nate Christensen, who helped get the Thunder off to a good start and totaled 13 points “We are pretty consistent and focused, and I hope we can keep it up.”
The Thunder (22-8) will face Waterville-Elysian-Morristown (28-2) at Williams Arena on Wednesday at 8 p.m.
Brandon Giese nailed 16 points, Ethan Lunning and Christensen 13 each, and Blake Ehley and Caleb Lunning eight each in the section finals. Caleb dished five assists. Eleven players took part, with 10 in the scoring column and 10 in the rebound column.
“It’s a team game and we play 10 or 11 guys, and that’s a lot, and they all have to contribute,” said Kvidt. “I thought they all did awesome.”
As they’ve done in every playoff game, the Thunder came out of the locker room hot-handed and grabbed a big early lead, this time 16-8 as Christensen hit twice from the outside for five points and Giese deposited two breakaway layups and a three.
“We come out so pumped up, we’re letting them fly and they’re going in,” said Giese, senior guard. “We played great defense, too.”
Added Ethan Lunning: “In practice, we take hundreds of shots. We do a lot of shooting drills.”
Watertown-Mayer (20-10), led by splendid 6-6 center Nate Gratz with 20 points and sharpshooter Alex Runck with 13, surged several times to cut the gap to four or six points.
But the Thunder, shooting 7-for-14 on 3-pointers and 17-for-20 at the line, and outrebounding the bigger rivals 31-29, always pulled away.
“We played hard, but Zimmerman is a really, really good team,” said Royal coach Bob Hennen. “Every time we’d close the gap, they would have an answer with a big three or a big bucket of some kind. They just beat us tonight.”
He added: “It’s hard to prepare for this team because they are so fast at every spot, and if you turn the ball over it’s going to go for two. We have played a lot of tough teams but they are probably the fastest team we played all year.”
Kivdt, asked what concerned him about W-M most said: “Their big guy, and they have couple guys who can shoot three’s we were worried about, too. The big guy got his points, but we needed to limit their their possessions and maximize ours, and i think we did that. And we really took advantage of our free throws tonight.”
Christensen, a slim 6-3 junior, plays center for the smallish Thunder but snipes from the perimeter like most of the team. He was 3-for-5 and Giese was 2-for-4 outside the arc.
“My sister shot three’s, so I started shooting them, too,” said Christesen, referring to Kayla, a six-footer who made all-NSIC with Concordia-St. Paul.
At the line, the leaders were Ethan Lunning 5-for-5, Caleb Lunning 5-for-6 and Ehley 4-for-5.
Zimmerman led 35-27 at halftime and stayed at least nine points ahead through the final 18 minutes. Up 66-57 with 2:20 left, they spread the offense and effectively played keepaway most of the remaning time.
There was no suspense left, but the ending was thrilling anyway as the Thunder and fellow students formed a joyous mob on the court.
“The moment the buzzer went off, that was one of greatest moments of my life,” said Giese. “I loved it. That was awesome.”
About the team’s mindset for playoffs, in which Zimmerman had never won more than one game previously, Giese said: “We knew we had to play tough and our goal was to play our hardest no matter what, and I think we did that, too. We won every game by a substantial amount.”
Zimmerman has had state entrants in wrestling and track (including Giese, who took eighth in long jump last year) but this is the first state team qualifier.
“Yes, it is, and that’s a great feeling,” said Kvidt.
He added; “This is one of those deals that brings community together. It is awesome we were able to do that for our town, and see the school pride and school spirit come out,. I hope they keep coming out next Wednesday night.”
Mississippi 8 helps
The Thunder enter state with eight losses, as a 2A team playing 3A’s and 4A’s in the Mississippi 8, where they placed fourth at 9-7. The three teams above them didn’t make state but Buffalo was Section 8AAA runner-up and STMA lost in the semifinals, each stopped by Maple Grove, while Rogers was Section 5AAA runner-up.
‘Being in fourth (place) in in that sort of conference shows we deserve to go to state,” said Ethan Lunning.
“When we play huge schools like Rogers and St. Micahael and Buffalo,” noted Giese, “and we’re going against all those big 6-7 guys, that definitely helps get us ready for sections.”
Next year will be different in both regards as the Thunder will leave the Mississippi 8 to join a new conference, Granite Ridge, and will move up to Class 3A and play Iron Range teams.
The Class AA field almost set
The unranked Thunder (22-8) face the No. 7 ranked Waterville-Elysian-Morristown Buccaneers (28-2), the Section 2AA champion, at state on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Williams Arena.
The other pairings are Rochester Lourdes (22-7) vs. Long Prairie-Grey Eagle (25-4), Redwood Valley (21-7) vs. Minnehaha Academy (17-13), and Perham (28-1) vs. Virginia (25-4) or No. 5 Moose Lake-Willow River (27-2), who play Saturday night.
The 2A rankings didn’t hold up well as the top four on the list — Plainview-Elgin-Millville, Braham, Minnewaska Area and Pequot Lakes — were all knocked out.
Thunder fans in ‘black-out’
The Thunder’s boisterous student gallery turned out in full force as usual, this time with everyone decked out in black.
“Our fans have been great. They went with Blackout tonight,” Kvidt noted.
The gallery includes many athletes from other sports including football teammates of Ethan and Caleb Lunning.
“We love our fans, and I would hate to play a team that has those kind of fans,” grinned Ethan.
Giese echoed: “We have the best fans in section and maybe in state in my opinion.”
Zimmerman 70, Watertown-Mayer 57
Watertown-Mayer ……. 27 30 — 57
Zimmerman …………….. 35 35 — 70
Watertown-Mayer — Jordan Anderson 0, Roland Owczarek 6, Nate Kratch 20 (8 reb), Dylan Malberg 3, Drake Matuska 6 (7 reb), Trevor Weinmann 9, Dustin Thomas 13, Alex Runck 13 … Team totals: 22-50 FG, 6-21 3FG, 7-14 FT, 29 rebounds, 19 fouls, 19 turnovers
Zimmerman — Ethan Lunning 13 (5 reb), Blake Ehley 8 (5 reb), Nate Christensen 13 (5 reb, 2 stl), Caleb Lunning 8 (5 reb, 5 ast), Brandon Giese 16, Corey Foyt 3 (2 stl), Gavin Doppler 6, Kyle Connelly 0 (2 stl), Jake Wilson 2, Adam Fordahl 3 … Team totals: 23-50 FG, 7-14 3FG, 17-20 FT, 31 rebounds, 15 fouls, 14 turnovers