Can you name the team to beat in Class 4A boys basketball? That’s not an easy question, simply because there are so many teams that could make a run at the state championship this year.
In the words of Apple Valley coach Zach Goring, whose teams won state titles in 2013, 2015 and 2017, “It’s as wide open as I’ve ever seen it.”
Apple Valley lost a conference home game for the first time in nearly six years Tuesday night, falling to Lakeville North 73-67 in the South Suburban Conference. It was a prime matchup, with North holding the No. 3 spot in the Minnesota Basketball News rankings and the Eagles at No. 5.
The top spot in the weekly rankings has provided a strong barometer of the uncertainty of 4A, with four teams being No. 1 in the first four polls. In the late-November preseason rankings, Apple Valley was No. 1 before losing to Minnehaha Academy (No. 1 in 2A all season) and Edina. That win by Edina helped the Hornets grab the No. 1 position for a week, and then it was Eden Prairie’s turn in the top spot for the next seven days.
On Dec. 20, Cretin-Derham Hall became No. 1 and the Raiders have held that position.
“In my opinion Cretin’s the best, I would say, that we’ve played,” said Goring (the Raiders beat Apple Valley 80-69 on Dec. 30). “When they get everyone going full bore they’re really good.”
Cretin-Derham Hall is 10-1 after beating Forest Lake 84-48 on Tuesday; the Raiders’ loss was to Edina. Hopkins is No. 2 in the rankings with a 13-1 record; the Royals lost to Cretin-Derham Hall in their season opener. Lakeville North, Eden Prairie and Apple Valley round out this week’s top five ranked teams.
No one questions the parity at the top of 4A, including Lakeville North’s John Oxton, a Hall of Fame coach whose teams have won more than 500 games and the 2014 state championship.
“Absolutely, absolutely. There are really a lot of good teams,” he said. “I think we’ve proved that we’re one of them. There’s a lot of basketball left to be played and it’ll be good basketball, and competitive.”
North’s win at Apple Valley ended an 11-game, five-year losing streak to the Eagles and also halted the Eagles’ six-year home winning streak in league play. Apple Valley has won five consecutive South Suburban championships, going 91-1 in conference games.
The Eagles held a 13-point lead with nine and half minutes to play before North outscored them 34-15 the rest of the way. The Panthers were led by 6-foot-7 Tyler Wahl with 20 points and 11 rebounds, while the 6-6 Tyler Lewko scored 17. For Apple Valley, Duke-bound Tre Jones had 22 points, Ely Hendrickson came off the bench to hit seven of 10 three-point shots for 21 points, and Zach Korba scored 12.
“When we got down, they did a great job of persevering and sticking with it,” Oxton said. “We had so many kids step up and make big plays, so that was pretty cool.”
Apple Valley had some matchup problems with North’s size. The Eagles have played the entire season without 6-4 senior Luke Martens, who is expected to return soon from an injury.
“Like I told our kids, I didn’t have a problem with our effort or our energy tonight,” Goring said. “(North) just got really hot late. And without Martens we really struggle without a matchup with Wahl. If we have Luke, he can guard Tyler and we’re in better shape there.”
Jones was fouled and fell hard with 7:40 left in the first half. Bleeding from his mouth and complaining of a headache, he left the gym with an athletic trainer and missed the rest of the half. He played the entire second half.
Apple Valley will have a different look next season without Jones or his older brother Tyus, who also played at Duke and is now with the Timberwolves.
“It’ll be super different and I have to admit it’s not going to break my heart,” Oxton said of the end of the Jones era at Apple Valley. “But it’s been an honor to play against them. And obviously there’s still lots of basketball left to be played, for sure.”
That is for sure.
“I think a lot of teams have really stepped up, we’ve got a lot of quality coaches and a lot of quality players,” Goring said. “Everyone’s knocking everyone off.”Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn