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NRHEG boys’ team off to a strong start

Senior-led Panthers take team-first approach, find success

The NRHEG boys’ basketball team has had the best winter sports season in the Albert Lea Tribune coverage area so far.

Despite dropping their first game of the season to No. 9 Waseca (3A) on Tuesday, the No. 9 Panthers (2A) are 17-1 for several reasons.

Head coach Pat Churchill is in his seventh year at the helm and said he thinks the senior leadership on the team is a big reason why NRHEG has been so good this season and gotten off to its best start since 2013-14 when the team started 6-0.

“We knew we had a lot of experience coming back from a team that finished 17-10 last year,” Churchill said. “We had a goal of competing in the conference and sub-section. We felt we were close, but needed to beat teams like Waterville-Elysian-Morristown and Maple River.”

NRHEG's Benji Lundberg looks to pass during Friday's game against Bethlehem Academy in New Richland. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

NRHEG’s Benji Lundberg looks to pass during Friday’s game against Bethlehem Academy in New Richland. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

After going a combined 0-6 against both schools last year, NRHEG has gone 3-0 against them this season with two more matchups remaining.

The experience the Panthers returned this season includes seven seniors led by Oakley Baker and Tyler Raimann.

“(Oakley) is the heart of our team,” Churchill said. “But (Tyler) is the voice.”

Baker is averaging 18.7 points per game, and Raimann is second on the team with an average of 14.1 points. Churchill said the 6-foot 8-inch Raimann has been a nice surprise this season after foul trouble normally was an issue last season.

“(Tyler) is having a nice offensive season,” Churchill said. “Defensively, he is not fouling as much as last year, which allows him to be in the game more.”

But it’s been the production those two get from their teammates that has allowed the Panthers to win close games.

“(Benji Lundberg) off the bench gives us a nice spark offensively and defensively,” Churchill said.

Lundberg has come in clutch in numerous games this season.

He had 11 points in a 50-43 win over W-E-M on Jan. 5. Two days later, he scored 19 points off the bench in a 59-50 win over Hayfield and 17 points against Bethlehem Academy on Jan. 20.

Baker missed NRHEG’s Jan. 27 game against Medford, but Lundberg and Jason Jongbloedt stepped in and each scored 10 points to help the Panthers to a convincing win.

While Lundberg has been a consistent offensive option off the bench, it hasn’t been only him who has stepped up as third scorer for NRHEG.

In a Dec. 29 win over Maple River, Chad Agrimson led the Panthers with 16 points in the game. In another early season game, his brother, Brady, scored 17 against Le Sueur-Henderson. Many guys on the team have answered the bell when their number has been called.

NRHEG's Oakley Baker grabs a rebound during Friday's game against Bethlehem Academy in New Richland. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

NRHEG’s Oakley Baker grabs a rebound during Friday’s game against Bethlehem Academy in New Richland. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

“These seniors have been tremendous about being true leaders and not caring who scores or plays more,” Churchill said. “They have set a goal of winning games, picking up people when they are struggling and have been sticking together.”

The Panthers aren’t the most explosive offensive team, but they still average 63.2 points per game and allow 44 per game on defense, which Churchill said is about 12 less than last season. They have won 13 games by 10 or more points.

“These kids have bought into the fact that if we get stops and make shots, we will be a tough to team to beat,” Churchill said.

As the wins have been piling up — even though they are no longer undefeated — interest in NRHEG basketball increases every game.

“You definitely hear it from people outside the team,” Churchill said. “As we continue to win, their interest grows. I think our kids realize that we are off to a good start, but that we still have to get better and work hard to get to where we want to go.”

NRHEG still has work left to do in the regular season. The Panthers have eight games left before the playoffs start, and Churchill wants his team to stay focused on the game that’s in front of them.

“Right now, we are focusing on finishing strong in the conference,” Churchill said. “Our section is one of the toughest sections in the state, and we realize it will be extremely hard to win, so we are enjoying the season for what it is and we will do our best when the playoffs start.”