Despite a tough regular season schedule that saw his team losing seven games, Dighton High School boy’s head coach Earl Steffens was optimistic heading into Class 1A-Division II sub-state play.
“I kept telling the boys that our losses came against some pretty good teams and our schedule was preparing us for the post-season,” he says.
He had a locker room filled with believers on Saturday night as the Hornets were celebrating their first trip to the state tournament since 1994.
Led by senior center Dirk Torson and junior guard Isaac Alinor with 15 points each, Dighton jumped out to an early lead and made it hold up for a 57-52 win over Palco in the championship game.
“I challenged Isaac before the game,” says Steffens. “I told him he had to take the ball into the middle and take on the defense. He was able to get their guards into some early foul trouble and that set the tone for him the rest of the night.”
In addition to Alinor, the head coach says that Torson and junior guard Ryan Horn “played the games of their careers.”
The Hornets needed that kind of team effort with Palco focusing their defensive efforts on shutting down senior guard/forward Ryan Kuhlman who was limited to just six points (3-of-9 FG).
With Alinor driving to the basket, he scored seven of his team’s 14 first quarter points.
The key to the game may have come in the second period when Dighton began connecting from long range against Palco’s man defense. A night after shooting just 5-of-30 from beyond the three-point line, the Hornets were 7-of-16 against Palco, including treys by Trevor Bollinger, Matthew Mulville and Horn in the second period as they built a 30-25 halftime cushion.
When the Roosters switched to a 2-3 zone in the second half it had little effect on the Hornets who added third quarter treys from Mulville, Horn and Alinor, stretching their lead to 43-36.
Dighton saw a nine point lead early in the fourth quarter shrink to just two points, but they never gave up the lead. They stretched their advantage back to eight points before Palco hit a three just ahead of the buzzer.
Torson scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half and added five rebounds. Torson also challenged Palco’s 6-4 center and was able to get to the free throw line where he was 3-of-4.
“The unsung hero was Ryan (Horn). This was the second game that he started for us at the other guard position. He hustled on defense and was in their face the entire time. He was all over the floor,” says Steffens. “Plus, he hit two real timely threes.”
Horn, Mulville and Mathew Barnett each finished with six points. Alinor and Horn each had six rebounds to lead the team.
The head coach also gives Alinor a lot of the credit for the team keeping its composure in the fourth quarter when Palco made their scoring run.
“I can’t give Isaac enough credit as the floor general,” he says. “They were all over Ryan (Kuhlman). And Isaac was all over their best offensive player and kept him from driving to the basket.”
Steffens feels their regular season schedule - which included three state-bound teams - prepared them for this opportunity.
“As a team, this was probably our best team performance of the year. We were patient, took the right shot and, fortunately, a lot of them were falling for us,” Steffens says.
“This is the type of ball we were hoping to play and it couldn’t have come at a better time.”