Team leaves behind a legacy

Published 9:37am Monday, March 17, 2014

By Rocky Hulne, Austin Daily Herald

MINNEAPOLIS — The Austin boys basketball team put up one last strong effort, but it wasn’t enough as the Packers fell short to DeLaSalle in the Class AAA state title game in Target Center Saturday.

It is the second straight year the Packers lost to DeLaSalle in the title game.

Austin senior guard Ajuda Nywesh came up big in defeat for the Packers (28-4 overall) as he poured in a game-high 24 points and he went 4-for-7 on 3-pointers. Nywesh wasn’t happy to lose the game, but he was happy that he could end his Packer career without regrets.

“I know I finished my senior year giving it all I’ve got. I know I had nothing left at the end of the game,” Nywesh said. “It’s the best thing to be in the state tournament itself. Not too many high schoolers get to say I’ve been to the state tournament three times and we took second two years in a row.”

The Islanders (26-3 overall) set the tone with their defense as they kept the Packers out of the paint. They also had plenty of offense as they shot 68 percent (26-for-38) from the field and 67 percent (4-for-6) on 3-pointers.

“We were starting offense thirty five feet from the basket and we have a Division two point guard, who we think is Division one,” Austin head coach Kris Fadness said. “Their pressure on the perimeter is outstanding. They’re a great, great half court defensive team and we really had trouble just getting an open shot.”

The Packers tied the game at 14-14 when Gach Gach hit a 3-pointer early in the first half, but the Islanders took over from that point. Austin was as close as 33-22 when Zach Wessels posted up and scored at the beginning of the second half, but it just couldn’t hold off DeLaSalle’s push.

“They’re good. They’re DeLaSalle. They’ve been good for a long time and they will be for a long time,” Wessels said. “We gave it all we had, but they were just too good. They’re in the top two hundred in the nation and we lost to a better team.”

The Packers were one of just five teams to hold the Islanders to 60 points or less this season and three of those games were early in the season when DeLaSalle’s Reid Travis, a Stanford commit, was battling a foot injury. Travis finished with 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting on Saturday.

“When you’ve got Reid Travis in the middle, you’ve got to give them something. We chose to give them some threes and they made them tonight,” Fadness said. “They’re a powerhouse. They’ve got a great program and the rest of us are envious.”

Although they couldn’t quite get to the top, the Packers have to feel good about getting to state three years in a row after the team hadn’t gone to state in the 30 previous seasons before that. Wessels, who is AHS’s all-time leading scorer, said he will walk away from his Packer career knowing he was part of something special.

“We are built on heart and going in there and giving it all we’ve got. We did that tonight and they were just better,” Wessels said. “No one thought we would be back here or be close to here. We proved so many people wrong and showed people we’re still good. Finishing the season at 28-4 is not bad at all and getting back to the state championship game, that’s something special.”

Fadness, who coached Caledonia to a state title over DeLaSalle in 1997, said the Packer basketball program has grown leaps and bounds over the past few years. The team has produced three players who were Division II or better in the past two years and the team has won three straight Big Nine titles and three straight Section 1AAA titles.

“We went through a stretch in Austin in the mid 2000s were we weren’t that good,” Fadness said. “You wonder if you’re going to have your job back the next year. We found a system with our zone defense, we ran with it and it was successful and then we started getting players. Guys have just revitalized my career to now I feel pretty comfortable about where we’re at.”

Wessels will go on to play at the University of Sioux Falls, S.D. next season with former teammate Tom Aase and its likely Nywesh and Bret Lukes will be playing college basketball next season.

Wessels said things will be quite different next year, but he feels the Austin basketball program is in a good place.

“It’s a brand new start,” Wessels said. “I’ll have to start from the beginning (at Sioux Falls) again and my freshman year I’ll have to prove myself and prove that I’m in it to win it.”