FAM BEARCATS: WHAT THEY’VE BEEN PLAYING FOR
When Freeman Academy/Marion takes the court against Irene-Wakonda at Freeman Public Friday night, March 4, they will be playing with both a chip on their shoulder and deep motivation in their heart.
The chip on their shoulder comes from last year’s loss to Viborg-Hurley in the same situation and on the same court — with a trip to the SoDak 16 on the line — but also a lack of statewide acknowledgement this season. It wasn’t until the final South Dakota Prep Media Basketball Poll that the 19-2 Bearcats were even considered for a top-five in the Class B standings, and that came on a single vote.
As for the motivation, that comes from a deep desire to reach the State B Boys Basketball Tournament — something that has never happened for a Freeman Academy basketball team and is what has driven them well before even when the season started.
Make no mistake about it: Head coach Austin Unruh and the Bearcats will say in no uncertain terms that anything other than playing on the Barnett Center hardwood in Aberdeen March 17-19 would be an utter disappointment.
They also know that taking care of business needs to be their immediate focus, which will fuel the FAM boys when Friday’s Region 5B final against the Eagles tips off at 6 p.m.
“We have to treat every game like it could be our last, which at this point in the season it would be,” Unruh said after the top-seed Bearcats handled eight-seed Alcester-Hudson a 70-34 loss in Region 5B play Tuesday night, March 1. “We always prepare to play at our highest level for each and every game regardless of who we’re playing.”
While Freeman Academy/Marion handled the Cubs with ease on Tuesday night, “we didn’t have our best stuff,” admits Unruh. They will have to be better Friday against a fourth-seeded Irene-Wakonda team that lost to the Bearcats by just eight points during the regular season and one that will be highly motivated to pull off an upset.
“Postseason basketball often comes down to the little things — who wins the turnover battle, who wins the rebounding battle, who wins loose balls, who gives up fewer offensive rebounds, who maximizes opportunities,” said Unruh. “And it’s going to be about setting the tone defensively.”
That’s something the Bearcats have been focusing on in the past few weeks in preparation for, presumably, tougher games to come.
“You can always play better defense,” says the coach. “We’re an undersized team; in general, we’re going to be the smaller team on the floor, which means we have to do a great job of defensive positioning and effort. Those are things we can always do better.”
The FAM players have also been working on fine-tuning other details of their game, like getting out quicker in transition and a sharper motion offense, and then analyzing during and after games.
“We set goals for things we need to improve on and then ask ourselves, ‘are we improving in those aspects of the game? We’re trying to use this opportunity to take a step forward rather than just maintaining.”
Unruh said he is also working on his players’ court awareness based on what is happening in the game.
“I have a list of eight different situations we have been working on,” he said — “big-game moments that we need to be able to implement at a moment’s notice, when it’s loud and crazy.”
Bearcats head coach Austin Unruh is pictured with the seniors on the team: Dylan Johansen, Quincy Blue, Thalen Schroeder and Donte Butler.There will be no shortage of energy in the Freeman Public gym Friday night for what will be two Region 5B finals: The FA/Marion game against Irene-Wakonda and second-seed Viborg-Hurley facing third-seed Centerville to follow.
The Eagles go into their clash with the Bearcats 9-12 and defeated fifth-seed Scotland 57-51 Region 5B play Tuesday night to get there. Irene-Wakonda outmatches FA/Marion in height; in addition to two 6-3 upperclassmen, the Eagles feature a 6-9 sophomore in Jake Kuhl — one of two post players who hurt the Bearcats in their 58-50 win over the Eagles on Jan. 27. He had 11 points and 13 rebounds against Scotland earlier this week.
“We are going to have to a lot better job in our interior defense on Friday,” said Unruh, who will assign that task to 6-5 senior forward Thalen Schroeder.
Meanwhile, the Bearcats will have to do the things that have lifted them to a 19-2 record and has them tied for the sixth spot in the Class B standings based on seed points — that is, control the tempo of the game, get points in transition, knock down shots from long range and keep the opposing guards in their hip pocket.
If FA/Marion can connect those dots, a trip to next Tuesday’s SoDak 16 is probable. There, they would most likely be a No. 6 or No. 7 seed and face either No. 12 Timber Lake (17-3) or No. 11 Waubay-Summit (18-3), according to the reliable SD Scores app.
Both of Friday’s games will be streamed on the NFHS Network, although a special postseason subscription is required. The monthly pass costs $10.99.
Click here to watch and listen to a 13-minute video of Jeremy Waltner’s interview with the coach and players.