By Kevin Thompson
Special to the HDN
DODGE CITY — A state title was on the line for Northern Valley, looking to win its first such title since 1991 and fourth in school history.
In the way was McPherson-Elyria Christian, a matchup of the Class 1A Division II tournament’s top two seeds.
It was a game worthy of the billing as the top-seeded Northern Valley Huskies prevailed, 63-52.
That makes the first team title since 1991 and fourth in state history.
And this title game proved that no lead, no matter how big, is safe in a state title game.
Northern Valley led 46-30 midway into the third before the Eagles staged a comeback.
But even though the Huskies converted just one field goal in the final 12 minutes, it was their defensive pressure and free throws that won the game.
Caden Bach’s field goal at 6:09 in the fourth was enough from the floor as the Huskies shot 17 free throws in the final minutes, converting 12.
Meanwhile, the Eagles, in trying to come back, hit just two field goals and were just 4 of 8 from the line, not enough for them, but just fine for the champions, who finished 18 of 25 in free throws, committed just eight turnovers, and shot 50 percent (20 of 40).
“This feels really good,” coach Chuck Fessenden said following the trophy presentation. “We had to beat a pretty good team. They’re tough. We came through at the right time, I guess.”
Northern Valley started off hot, taking a 15-7 lead with under two minutes to play in the opening quarter, stopping the Eagles on six straight possessions during one stretch.
Leading 20-15 heading into the second quarter, Riley Sides scored seven straight points for the Huskies to give his team a 29-19 lead at the 4:23 mark.
Sides’ second trey of the quarter regained the 10-point lead (34-24) with 2:12 left in the half, but the Eagles ended on a 5-0 run, including a questioned no-call as Aiden Fields drove for a layup following a steal.
The game got more physical to start the third period, but it worked to Northern Valley’s advantage as it scored on three straight possessions following offensive rebounds to take a 41-29 lead, following that with another to take a 46-30 lead with 4:01 to play.
And the next 4:01 belong to Elyria Christian, who shut out the Huskies the rest of the quarter to close to within 46-41.
Riley Sides scored 24 points to lead the Huskies. Caden Bach had 15, and Nicholas Stutsman 10.
Fessenden knew the end of the first half was physical, but he was glad his team had an answer coming out of the break.
“That was huge. Coming out in the third quarter, it was fairly physical,” he said. “But if it is, we’ll step it up, too. We can play like that, too.”
The field goal drought followed by the surge in free throws created a different kind of coaching strategy, as well, Fessenden said.
“We told them, don’t take the three. Keep taking it to the basket hard. Don’t throw something up and hope someone will bail you out,” he said. “Make them keep fouling you.”
Three players had fathers play on the last Northern Valley title team (Sides, Kinderknecht and Bach).
“Their dads are good players, so teach them when they’re young,” Fessenden said.
Kinderknecht is the only senior on the team.
“It means a lot going out, finishing a state championship my senior year,” he said. “I’m just so happy for all my teammates, too, getting this tradition back in Northern Valley.”
Physical as the game got, his team was ready to respond.
“We had to be just as physical,” Kinderknecht said. “But smart still. They were super physical, but I feel this is part of winning. We didn’t get down on ourselves. We stepped up and finished it out.”
Sides agreed, saying the game was anything but easy, even with the 16-point lead.
“They brought their A game,” he said of the Eagles. “We just played with guts and heart and fought to the end. We just wanted it. All those free throws we’ve been practicing, they won it for us.”
Tyler Thiessen led the Eagles (22-3) with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Caleb Froese added 13 points.
Northern Valley finished the year 25-1.