MOORHEAD — Mahnomen-Waubun head boys basketball coach John Clark Jr. has been around long enough to know that hills and valleys are inevitable in a season. He’s been waiting for his team to slip up this year, but they haven’t.
Other than one dud practice, his team has been in top form all season.
“I keep waiting for a letdown from them and I haven’t seen it,” Clark Jr. said. “I give a lot of props to the boys for coming to practice and working as hard as they do. It’s high-energy and high-intensity. It’s fun to be in practice."
The Thunderbirds are in the midst of their best season yet. The Class 1A, Section 6 team improved to 9-0 on the year — the co-op's best start in program history — with an 86-54 win over Park Christian (1-7) on Friday. Seven of those wins have been over Pine to Prairie opponents.
That energy and up-tempo play during practice has reflected in games. The Thunderbirds are averaging 82.5 points per game, with a 32-point scoring margin over opponents. M-W brought back pretty much everyone from last year, including its starting five.
“I don't think we expected to be winning games as handily as we are or playing in the manner we are this early,” Clark Jr. said. “I thought by the end of the season, we'd be pretty darn tough, but we played at a pretty high level right from Game 1.”
The Thunderbirds were the No. 4-ranked team in Class 1A in the latest poll by Minnesota Basketball News, a statewide basketball publication. It’s the highest the program has ever been ranked since its inception as a co-op in the 2017-18 season.
The co-op was an idea that took some getting used to early in the first year, but the Thunderbirds have come a long way since then. It didn’t take long for the players from two different schools that had long histories with each other to come together.
At the start of the inaugural season, Clark Jr. didn’t know if they could mesh together in a matter of months.
They did, and clinched a berth in the state tournament while they were at it.
Clark Jr. has never had a season where his expectations haven’t been bested. Last year’s team, which made it to the subsection championship a season ago against Henning, featured almost an entirely brand new starting lineup and a lot of sophomores who were inexperienced.
Once again, Clark Jr.'s kids surpassed any predictions. They instantly gelled and got some confidence, which has carried into this season.
“I think a big part of it is our team chemistry and being able to play with each other,” said junior point guard Loden Clark. “We all know each other very well and we play with each other. We don’t care who scores. We play to win.”
Ego isn’t something you’ll find much of in the M-W locker room.
“They’re about winning and playing good basketball more than they are individual stats or glory,” Clark Jr. said. “We have kids that can score the basketball, but they're passing up good shots and shots I think they should take, and they’re passing to a teammate to try to get a better shot.”
On the court, it starts with M-W’s defense, Clark Jr. said. The Thunderbirds play a pressure-trapping defense that has generated a lot of points. They hang their hat on that.
“For high school kids to buy in that they're gonna play defense that hard for the entire game, that’s pretty special,” Clark Jr. said.
Park Christian got a taste of M-W’s potent defense Friday in Moorhead. The teams were tied at 10-10 seven minutes into the game, but it took a sharp turn once the Thunderbirds turned up the pressure on defense, which fed the offense. M-W grabbed a 12-point lead six minutes later (30-18), and didn’t stop stretching it, finishing with a 44-27 halftime advantage.
The Thunderbirds wasted no time pushing the margin in the second half, jumping out to a 60-38 lead in minutes. They didn’t stop scoring buckets or smothering Park Christian on the defensive end until the final buzzer.
M-W makes plenty of noise on the court, but its veteran leaders are guys of few words. The team’s top three scorers, Loden Clark, Tanner Pazdernik and Payton Keezer, lead by example and work ethic.
Keezer, a senior forward, is the team’s leading scorer averaging a double-double with 15.1 points and 10.1 rebounds through nine games. Keezer erupted for 25 points in Friday’s Pine to Prairie game against Park Christian. Loden averages 13 points per game and Pazdernik 12.
“Those kids are just ballplayers, and not only that, but they know how to win games,” Clark Jr. said of his three leading scorers. “They know the game so well, and they find different ways to be successful on the court.”
That trio puts up the most points on average, but they’re also solid on the other side of the ball.
“They’re a big part of our defense,” Clark Jr. said. “They get a lot of the steals, and a lot of the tips. I think each one of those kids could score a lot more points in a game if they really wanted to, but they’re probably the three most unselfish players we have.”
It doesn’t end there, either. The Thunderbirds get help from an entire bench. M-W has depth, and plays 10 kids, even a couple more at times.
That’ll come in handy as the Thunderbirds face their toughest test yet this season in No. 1-ranked Nevis (8-0) on Tuesday, Feb. 16.