by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Elk River’s two returning starters led the way, and several other players making varsity debuts chipped in, as the Elks defeated Coon Rapids 85-77 in a furious-paced, often sloppy opener at home Friday evening.
Junior guard Mitchell Weege sank 24 points, including 10-for-12 on free shots. Senior forward Clay Elrod, who entered the season with 1,111 points, added 21 points, including 5-for-5 free shots and some power moves inside while struggling outside the arc (2-for-8).
“We had three kids out there with a lot of experience, and after that, none,” said Elk coach Randy Klasen. “For a lot of them, it was their first minutes in a varsity game, and that’s a big jump to make.”
Devell Miller, junior 5-11 forward, sank 14 points to lead the rookies, a group that also included sophomores Matt Keller, Trent Pink and Lucas Trapp, junior Jarin Haywood and senior Wyatt Schuster. The other letterman on the floor was junior Zach Ernst.
The Elks made 22 of 29 free shots, along with six 3-pointers.
Coon Rapids kept the pressure on by sinking 11 of 22 from 3-point range and playing at full-throttle throughout, often freelancing, forcing numerous turnovers while throwing the ball away a few times themselves.
Junior guard Chris Buckley netted 19 points including three 3-pointers and some slashing drives. Henry Churilla, willowy 6-foot-7 center, laid in 14 points, and junior guard Payton Foy added 10. The Cardinals committed 24 fouls and had two players foul out.
“Coon Rapids did a good job pressuring us,” said Klasen, “and made us play a little faster than you want to play this time of year. Games like this can get kind of sloppy. Buckley gave us a tough time. He created (plays) really well.”
Coon Rapids rallied from a nine-point deficit to knot the score at 70, but the Elks pulled away with a 9-0 run. Elrod, who had missed three straight 3-pointers, went inside for a power move. Keller missed a 3-pointer but hustled after the rebound and drove the baseline for a follow-up layup, then got a defensive rebound and heaved the ball to Elrod for a soaring breakaway layup. Weege sank three of four free shots and the Elks led 79-70 with a minute and a half left.
“For the most part I thought we played fairly well,” said Klasen. “We made too many turnovers, and I would have liked to defend better, but when Coon Rapids made that run, I thought we weathered the storm. We didn’t panic, we fought through it, and knocked down some big free shots.”
Along with Weege’s scoring, Klasen cited the 6-foot point guard for settling the team down after a ragged start by taking over more of the ball handling in the first half. The Elks trailed by seven early but wound up leading 44-40 at the break.
Elk River normally opens with a non-conference game against section rival Buffalo, but the basketball schedule is different this year (including girls starting later than boys). The Elks not only had to start with a conference game, but also will have a big scrimmage on Saturday, after already opening the season. The participants include state champions Apple Valley and DeLaSalle so the Elks didn’t want to miss that one. Then the Elks will have their annual early-season date with Buffalo, at the Bison court on Tuesday.