Going streaking: Fargo Shanley boys basketball team riding 5-game win streak as season enters stretch run
The Deacons started with a dismal 1-5 record in Eastern Dakota Conference play before head coach Craig Irwin posed to his players a simple request: Step out of the gym if you don't believe
FARGO — "If there's anybody here that doesn't think you can win a state championship, I want you to step out of the gym."
Those were the words Fargo Shanley boys basketball head coach Craig Irwin uttered to his team following a "disappointing" loss to Fargo South on Jan. 3.
That loss to the Bruins was the fourth setback in a row for the Deacons — falling to 2-5 overall and 1-5 in Eastern Dakota Conference contests.
"We don't do a lot of talking," Irwin said. "We don't sit down, we get into the gym and we get busy right away. But after a disappointing loss to South, we did kind of have a little sit-down session, heart-to-heart."
In that meeting, Irwin made his expectations very clear.
"And I didn't say just get to a state tournament, I said win a state championship," Irwin told his players. If that wasn't clear to anybody, they were free to leave the gym.
Whatever else the first-year Deacons coach told his squad that day isn't known, but it appears to be paying off. Since the loss to South, the Deacons have rattled off five straight wins to improve to 7-5 and shoot up to sixth place the EDC standings.
"That's the thing, as a coach, we believed in these guys as a coaching staff," Irwin said. "We feel we had talent at that time, but we didn't feel like we were getting the most out of them as a coaching staff either.
"What I'm so proud of these young men for is that they never lost faith in us and in what we were doing. And their maturity, they just kept plugging away and are continuing to play hard."
The five wins have come over Wahpeton, Valley City, West Fargo Horace, Grand Forks Central and West Fargo Sheyenne.
Losing takes a toll on every athlete, especially in the competitive gauntlet known as the EDC. When the going gets tough, however, the least you can do is have fun and that's been a primary key to success throughout Shanley's win streak.
"Early on when we were struggling, I kind of just told (the guys) that we're out here to have fun." Deacons senior forward and South Dakota State commit Conner Kraft said. "That kind of just lifted the pressure off of everybody because I think we felt like coming in, we had a lot to do. So I kind of told them that we're out here to have fun and then I started kind of playing more like myself. That's been our key — just having fun every day, getting better every day and buying into what this staff has for us."
Not only has the team bought in to Irwin and his staff, but the players have bought into each other as well.
"I think for us, it's just all buying in to what coach has for us as well as trusting each other," senior forward Vuciri Hakim said. "And getting more cohesive on offense."
Offense is something the team has been working to improve with longer shoot-arounds to begin practices. The Deacons are shooting 38 1/2 percent through 12 games this season which ranks eighth out of 12 EDC teams.
Shanley is averaging just over 64 points per game, good for only 10th in the conference. On the flip side of that, however, the Deacons rank above all in scoring defense — allowing an average of 60.6 points per game.
"Both of our defensive (coaches) told us shots won't be there every night, but one thing that will be there every night will be defense if we just buy into it," Kraft said. "I think that's kind of what we've been sticking to. Our percentages have been getting better gradually as guys are starting to get more shots up.
"By the time the end of the season rolls around, by the postseason, I think we'll be right there."
Kraft is averaging a double-double this season, putting up an average of 19.9 points per game and 10.6 rebounds. Hakim is also hitting double figures in scoring with 15.3 points per game and has the second-best field goal percentage in the EDC at just under 64 percent.
Other guys have the capability to dish the ball around. Senior guard Alex Wheelock sits fourth in the EDC with an average of 3.7 assists per game while junior guard Kaden Christmann is averaging 2.7 per night.
The offensive stats may not be the most flashy, but the defensive stats speak for themselves.
A towering 6-foot-8, Kraft leads the conference in blocked shots with 31 on the season. Hakim is also among EDC block leaders with 15 while Kraft and Christmann are both averaging more than two steals per game.
"We're a handful for some teams on the defensive side," Irwin said. "With our length, our athleticism and now improved principles every week. We're a lot better now defensively than we were at the beginning of the year, and I don't think we were too bad at the beginning of the year.
"That's the thing. We always keep telling them that there's always room for improvement. They continue to work hard and we're seeing that."
There's roughly a month to go before postseason play begins with the EDC tournament in late February. That month-long stretch will begin with a tough road test at third-place Grand Forks Red River on Friday night at 5:45 p.m. The Roughriders topped the Deacons 77-65 back on Dec. 6.
"We just need to let (Red River) not get in the middle," Hakim said. "Our defensive principles, stay true to them. Have a good rotation outside and get the ball inside to me and Conner. And if our shooters do their thing as well, then we'll be good."
While the win streak has been a fun stretch for the Deacons, Irwin knows his team can't get complacent.
"That's why we made the comments about winning a state title," Irwin said. "Games won in late February and March are what people remember. They don't remember the 1-5 start we had in the EDC and they don't remember the five-game winning streak we're on right now either.
"We don't want to have a mid-season slump right now. We want to continue to build momentum and have our progression daily and continue to get better. I'll put the pressure on myself and say we've got talent here. We weren't happy being 1-5 and we feel we can be right in the thick of things."
But the question remains: Do the players believe they're primed for that deep postseason run?
"I think so," Kraft said. "(Coach Irwin) has kind of said that to us every day. He's always had that confidence and I think that confidence is starting to put the light into everybody. I think that's definitely a big thing for us."
"I have that belief," Hakim added. "We're trying to get most of the guys to buy in as well and I think they're starting to."