Thunder men win, keep hope alive for state playoffsThe Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College men's team defeated the Norse 72-65 in a crucial Minnesota College Athletic Conference engagement Saturday at the Lester Jack Briggs Cultural Center on campus in Cloquet.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
CLOQUET – Re-entering the gymnasium following Saturday’s win over Mesabi Range, Thunder men’s basketball coach Damien Paulson made a gesture not often seen this winter: a fist pump.
It was a small sign of praise for his Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College team, which defeated the Norse 72-65 in a crucial Minnesota College Athletic Conference engagement Saturday at the Lester Jack Briggs Cultural Center on campus in Cloquet.
Not only did the first pump celebrate that win, but also two straight wins that have kept the tribal and community college in the race for the state playoffs – when all wins are a must.
Wins have been tough to come by for the Thunder (3-16) this winter. Paulson said everything from turnovers to rebounding and defense has hurt on the court. Numbers are a problem too. Since the year began in November, the lineup is down to less than half its original size.
Saturday’s victory, however, avenged an earlier loss at Mesabi Range. It also added to a 90-62 drubbing of Rainy River last Wednesday at home.
With back-to-back wins, FDLTCC is playing some of its best basketball at the right time of year.
“After Christmas, we still hadn’t won, but these guys just keep battling, persevering and believing in one another,” Paulson said. “Today, we came out and played.”
FDLTCC gave up the opening bucket of the game, yet only trailed one other occasion after that. They outscored the Norse 15-8 to break away from a 57-57 tie with just over eight minutes left to play.
“It felt amazing, I can’t even describe the feeling,” said team captain Alton Dixon about the vital victory. “Wins have been tough for us.”
Dixon, a 6-foot-6, 185-pound sophomore from Jacksonville, Fla., has been through a pair of tough seasons in his time with the Thunder. Yet, the lanky, high-flying forward said he and his teammates have stuck together. This season, especially, Dixon noted they’ve never counted themselves out of games.
“Not at all,” said Dixon, who had a game-best 21-point, 15-rebound performance Saturday afternoon. “We’ve played a lot of top teams, even the top team in the country, so we knew we had to stay motivated and just go day-by-day.”
“I think we can play with every team,” added fellow sophomore forward Tyler Campbell of Milwaukee, Wis. “Not just in the north, but in the state of Minnesota. We’ve lost a lot of big leads this season, but I was proud of us holding on [Saturday.]”
Campbell had 20 points, while sophomore guard Carlos Holcey and freshman Bryce Karppinen had 13 and 10, respectively. With their inaugural win this winter over Itasca back on Jan. 21, the Thunder sport a 3-4 MCAC record, good enough to place midway in the league.
And with the top four squads advancing to the state playoffs by month’s end, both coaches and players know this time of year could mark something special.
“We didn’t play well enough during the first half of the season to win games,” Paulson said, “but we’ve taken better care of the ball, played better defense and we’re rebounding now, too. Right now, though, we’re focused on getting ready for Vermilion.”
Paulson said the Ironmen are the top-ranked team in the MCAC’s Northern Division standings, as of Saturday. They whipped FDLTCC 99-69 in their season opener Nov. 15 and will be back to Cloquet Saturday, Feb. 11 for the 3 p.m. rematch.
“In this league, no one is going to give you wins,” Paulson said. “We just have to keep playing how we’re playing and let the chips fall where they fall.”
“Vermilion is the biggest game of the year, it’s a must win game for us,” the 6-foot-3-inch, 177-pound Campbell said. “It’d be nice to get Fond du Lac to the state playoffs for the first time in school history, because it’d put us on the map. Teams think we’re an easy win, but we just have to continue to stick together and keep working hard each day.”
“Our ultimate goal is the state playoffs,” he said. “To make the playoffs would be a great accomplishment for me, my team, my coaches and this program. If we make it there, we’d have a chance at the whole thing, then.”
Women survive with help from the softball team
Chances of winning their first game this winter have remained slim for the struggling FDLTCC women’s program.
With their latest 105-36 blowout loss to the Lady Norse Saturday afternoon, the Thunder (0-17) remained with their current goose egg.
“It’s been difficult and, really, just tough for us,” first-year Coach Melissa Johnson said Saturday, noting her team has seen players transfer schools and even quit the team. “But I give the girls on the team credit. Not all players can lose by 80 points and remain positive.”
Like the men, the FDLTCC women will next host Vermilion Saturday at 1 p.m.
Johnson said her seven-woman roster almost had to forfeit a few games due to the lack of players, until a number of FDLTCC spring softball players joined the lineup, including Ashley O’Day, Casey Pierce, Rachel Sanda and Courtney Kruse.
“They stepped up to help or, really, we wouldn’t have a team,” Johnson said. “Sure, it’s tough for us, but we’re remaining positive, focusing on little goals and making it fun.”