Defensive turnaround key for Thunder

Sports Reporter

by Eric Oslund

Sports Reporter

The Zimmerman Thunder boys basketball team was awarded the No. 3 seed in the Section 5AAA tournament after finishing the regular season 18-8, which included a four-game winning streak to end the season.

Their first game in the section tournament was at home against Becker on Tuesday, March 8, and there was a clear excitement among the players. They were ready to play, ready to represent their school on the home court, and exploded to a 26-9 lead to start the game.

Becker went on a little bit of a run to end the first half, and the Thunder found themselves leading 28-18 at the intermission.

Zimmerman guard Brian Rajchel scores on a layup during the first half vs. Becker. (Photo by Erik Jacobson)
Zimmerman guard Brian Rajchel scores on a layup during the first half vs. Becker. (Photo by Erik Jacobson)

“We were up right away in the first half, but I think the guys settled a little bit,” said head coach Nathan Christensen. “Once we came out at halftime that was kind of the theme: don’t settle, don’t let them get back in this game. Keep scoring, keep playing defense, and they bought into it and got out to a bigger lead, so it was nice.”

The Thunder remained strong through the entire second half of the game, winning 74-52. Christensen said that it was a team effort and maybe even one of the most complete games his team had played all season, with the defense leading the way the entire night.

Looking back on where this team was at the start of the season, it’s hard to believe it’s the same group of kids. They allowed their opponents to score over 70 points four times in the month of December, including back-to-back games against Becker and Big Lake where they gave up over 80.

That’s when Christensen and the rest of the coaches knew they needed to make a change, and since the start of January, opposing teams have put up 70 or more points just three times – with St. Cloud Cathedral doing it twice.

“It’s nice to see that they were able to, after Christmas break, buy into what we’re trying to do and then just adapt,” Christensen began. “Giving up 70 to 80 points a game obviously wasn’t good enough and then all of a sudden we cut it down to 40, 50, 60 and we’re winning games. So I think it was good to see that, from the beginning of the year to now, that our defense is definitely one of our strong points now.”

 Chandler Wellman eyes the basket while driving the lane during the Thunder's victory over Becker. (Photo by Erik Jacobson)
Chandler Wellman eyes the basket while driving the lane during the Thunder’s victory over Becker. (Photo by Erik Jacobson)

It’s always nice for any Zimmerman team to get a win over Becker. There is a big rivalry between the two schools since they are in the same conference and section, but the Thunder cannot celebrate for too long.

They know that they have to prepare for the No. 2 seed Rocori, who they will play Saturday, March 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the St. Cloud State University gym. It will be different for them since their first-round game was the third time this season they had seen Becker, but this will be the first time they have faced Rocori this year.

So instead of focus a ton of time on their opponents, Christensen is planning on improving his players. The only problem is that after his team played so well in their 74-52 win over Becker he isn’t sure where exactly they need to improve.

“Tonight, it’s hard to tell because we played so well,” the head coach said following their win. “But there were obviously times where Becker went on a run, how could we have stopped that? Offense was maybe on a dry spell for a little bit, how could we stop that? How could we fix these turnovers? Stuff like that. Just kind of going to go through the film, see what runs they went on and what we can fix, stuff like that.”