Fast-improving Tigers no longer satisfied with moral victories

Published 11:59pm Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Over the past half decade and change, there has been little to cheer about for the Albert Lea boys’ basketball program.

The Tigers last chance at glory was during the 2005-06 season, but even then a talented team finished a disappointing 12-14 overall, 9-10 in the Big Nine Conference and one win shy of the program’s second straight state tournament berth.

Looking back, that squad may as well be enshrined in the school’s athletic hall of fame, because the last six teams have eclipsed that year’s conference win total by one — combined.

That’s not to say they haven’t been close.

The Tigers are 0-5 in overtime over the past six seasons, and the same problem that has plagued earlier teams — winning close games — has infected the current team, too. But while the Tigers lost on Tuesday by five points or fewer for the third time this season and are still searching for that marquee win, one thing is certain: this is the best boys’ basketball team in six years.

Albert Lea’s current 3-9 record won’t turn any heads, but their play has. The team’s starting five have finally settled into their roles, and its sixth man, Tyler Vandenheuvel, has provided a sharp-shooting spark off the bench. The Tigers have its most skilled big man in Kyle Ooms since Parker Skophammer graduated in 2006 and scrappiest since Stephen Thorn left in 2004. That unique combination has made the big-hearted senior one of the best in the Big Nine.

Albert Lea is also the deepest it has been in years. Vandenheuvel and Tyler Wichmann are natural scorers who are equally as comfortable slashing to the hoop as shooting a 3, and 6-foot-6-inch sophomore Cody Scherff takes pressure off Ooms in the paint.

The Tigers’ most underrated player is junior guard Dylan See-Rockers, who’s value is becoming irreplaceable as the team’s most competent ballhandler and leader. Albert Lea’s third guard, Evan Templeman, has also made drastic improvements.

But the biggest improvement the Tigers have made this season is in its composure. The team welcomed three first-time starters to its rotation at the beginning of the season and it showed. Albert Lea was 0-4 out of the gates with two blowouts and two second-half meltdowns, common speed bumps for an inexperienced team.

The Tigers are now learning how to win and staved off late comebacks by Waseca and Mankato West to secure its first two victories. The win over West was its first against the Scarlets since 2004, and it followed that with a 25-point drubbing of Faribault and three-point loss to conference contender Rochester Century.

The Tigers’ latest two losses came by a combined 15 points against two of the top teams in the state, but don’t congratulate them. This team is no longer satisfied with moral victories.

“These guys have found out they can compete with all these teams in the conference,” Tigers coach Lucas Kreuscher said. “At the beginning of the year, we were hoping to stay close, we were hoping it’d be a good game. Now when we walk on the court, I don’t know if we’re expecting to win, but we know we’re going to be there.”

While the wins haven’t come yet, they will. Seven games into its conference schedule, the Tigers have losses to the Big Nine’s top five teams and beat the two they were expected to. When the team comes as close to winning as a half-court heave like on Tuesday, its players walk off the court angry, even if its to a team who expected to embarrass them and didn’t.

When asked if the current team is as confident a group he’s coached in three years at Albert Lea, Kreuscher said, without hesitation: “definitely.”

“They’re walking around with a confidence that I’ve never seen here. They’re getting things accomplished. We only have three wins but the guys are in tune, they’re focused, they know we’re a good team and we can compete. Our confidence, as a program, is at a high.”

The Tigers still have plenty of flaws, including most notably a league-worst scoring defense, but they’re eradicating them game by game. The team has two games remaining in the first half of its schedule and is sure to make plenty of noise the second time around.

Follow Tribune Sports Editor Andrew Dyrdal on Twitter (at)ADyrdal_Tribune.