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There are many strong athletic conferences across the state this year. However, I think it is pretty safe to say, at least among the Class C and D levels, that few are deeper then the Niobrara Valley Conference.
From top to bottom, the conference is full of talented squads. With the Niobrara Valley Conference kicking off this week, that is even more evident.
Lets start on the girls side of things. Elgin Public/Pope John and Elkhorn Valley have been incredible successful all season long. However, entering the tournament, they were seeded fourth and seventh, respectively. It is incredible to me to think that there are three teams in the entire state better than the Wolfpack, let alone in the conference. That shows just how good teams like St. Mary’s, the top seed, Chambers/Wheeler Central and North Central are.
The Wolfpack have been as dominant as any team this season, averaging 55 points a game while holding opponents to just 36 each night. They have lost just twice. Yet, the Cardinals, Renegades and Knights all have done just as good.
Elkhorn Valley has been one of the few teams that have shown the ability to take the Wolfpack to the wire. Yet, in their first-round showdown with Ewing, they were taken to the wire as well, needing two overtimes to beat the Tigers. They are led by arguably the most talented sophomore trio in the class, regardless of sport, in Sierra Rystrom, Amber Miller and Hannah Ollendick. When those three get clicking, they can beat anyone on any given night.
On the boys side, one can look at Neligh-Oakdale’s talented squad and understandably consider them a top team in the state. However, they entered the tournament as the three seed behind Boyd County and CWC, a squad that was upset by an underrated West Holt team on Monday night. The scoring abilities of Tyson Belitz, Grant White and Alex Kerkman combined with the inside presence of Chris Bentley and Austin Rice is unmatched in the class. However, they still were taken to the wire by an incredibly gifted Niobrara/Verdigre team that was given the sixth seed. In any other conference, the Cougars, who in my opinion have one of the best mixtures of post players and back court players in Northeast Nebraska, would have been a top-two seed.
All of that considered, that is just the top half of the bracket. Clearwater-Orchard’s girls have had a roller coaster year simply because they play in such a tough conference. Kinzly Macke and Kylie Thiele have led an incredibly resilient squad this year and they were barely able to sneak away from Stuart on Saturday to open tournament play. When teams with players like Macke and Thiele or Harlee Fischer and Trisha Fox of Stuart are ranked as the 8th and 9th best teams in the conference, you know you are stacked.
Neligh-Oakdale’s girls are led by senior Kinsley Klabenes and speedster Bailey Frey. Yet, it seems like a different girl is able to step up every night and help push the Warrior’s opponents to the limit, despite their record.
Lets not forget about the O-C boys as well, who were ranked 11th in the field and nearly came away with an upset of Niobrara/Verdigre in the first round. The talented team is young but is ready to pull of a shocker on any given night thanks to the talents of Travis Kerkman, Jacob Long, Chris Lester, Liam Odell and Blake Hoke.
EPPJ’s boys are another young team that seems to show improvement every time they step on the court. They are led by big man Kenny Bush and the athletic Chad Bode. However, the heart of the team is the underclassmen that seem to grow weekly. Ashton Evans is a sharpshooter, as is Hunter Reestman.
Elkhorn Valley is the 13th seed on the boys side, yet they are another team that can beat you on any given night. They have more double-doubles than any other team in Antelope County. Brayden Effle and Kalen Dittrich are rebounding machines, while players like Tucker Hecht and Austin Miller guide an offense that, when they are hot, can score in bunches.
The first round knocked out quite a few area teams and many more will see their dreams of a conference championship dashed on the way to Saturday’s championship games. However, not a single team should feel shame for competing the way they do against a conference like the NVC.