By CONOR NICHOLL
From the season's first game, Jordan Baird and his Almena-Northern Valley teammates talked about reaching the Class 1A Division II state tournament. That thought crystallized further when the Huskies discovered they could be in a sub-state with no squad that finished with more than 13 victories or had recent state tournament success.
But before the winter started, the Huskies' Eli Lowry died in a car accident Nov. 3.
"Real tough," junior Matt Stutsman said. "We could have used him so much."
Northern Valley purchased No. 12 warmup shirts in Lowry's memory, wore wristbands and put remembrances on their shoelaces. The Huskies brought a No. 12 jersey into the ceremonial photos after winning league and sub-state championships.
Northern Valley started the year strong and won the league title in midseason, but then dropped its last six regular season contests. In that stretch, multiple players were suspended for either one or two games; seniors Hunter Chandler and Jordan Baird missed two for what Baird called "an incident in the locker room."
"Most of the starters had to sit out one, so that's when it all started going down," Baird said.
Then, Northern Valley (13-10) rallied for two wins at the Wheatland-Grinnell sub-state and qualified for state for the sixth time in school history, first since 1992. The No. 8-seeded Huskies will play top-seeded Beloit/St. John's-Tipton (22-1) in the first round at 3 p.m. today at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
"It just had ups and downs all year, but we finally pulled it off, pulled ourselves together when it mattered the most," Baird said.
Northern Valley has won 18 football games in the last three falls, but never reached the playoffs. Among current athletes, only Chandler had reached the state track meet.
"That's a real honor," Stutsman said. "It's been so long. Everybody is so pumped about it."
But one hurdle remains: tradition. Coach Chuck Fessenden, in his 10th season with basketball, has coached the football team for 37 years and won four state titles and three runner-ups from 1982-90. Northern Valley also won Class 1A basketball crowns in '86, '90 and '91. Many of the current players have dads who played on the state championship teams, including Shane Baird, Jordan's father. Assistant coach Lance Kinderknecht was on the '90-91 teams.
"There is a weight off -- except there is one problem -- my dad won state," Baird said. "He is expecting me to go a little farther than just go to state. But it does lift a little weight off your shoulders. My dad has been talking about state all year after he saw our sub-state brackets."
Baird leads the team with 12.3 points per contest, while Stutsman is at 12 a game, and Chandler has 9.4 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds. Five players average at least three rebounds a contest, including junior Clint Cole (8.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.1 turnovers, fewest among regulars). Among regulars, Cole, the son of junior high coach Jim Cole, is the team's best shooter at 49 percent from the field.
"He has got real good fundamentals and stuff," Fessenden said. "He really plays within himself. He does exactly what he is supposed to every time. He never, I don't think all season, has ever done anything that's out of control. He is always under control, and he is real strong with the ball. He has got a real nice jump shot inside."
Fessenden, known for his even-keel personality, hasn't changed his demeanor despite Lowry's loss and the struggles. Fessenden said the team hasn't talked about Lowry's passing "a whole lot" and is hopeful emotions "will get better and better" as the school year goes along.
"I pretty much coach the way I always coach," Fessenden said. "I don't think it has been any different. It has been a tough year for us, but these kids had this as a goal.
"Once we saw who we had in our sub-state, we felt like we could play with anybody in our sub-state," he added. "This was one of our goals to get to the state tournament, and hopefully we are not going to be satisfied now, although our record is not super good."