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Mitch Weg (center) pumps up Worthington's boys' basketball team before the sub-section championship at SMSU in Marshall. Chris murphy/daily globe

State Basketball: WHS ready to take on top-seeded Perham in state quarterfinals

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WORTHINGTON -- Everything about Wednesday night's Minnesota State High School League Class AA boys' basketball tournament quarterfinal matchup between the Section 3-champion Worthington Trojans and the Section 8-champion Perham Yellowjackets -- scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at Target Center in Minneapolis -- is intriguing to say the least.

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Last year's state champion with a tremendous record of 31-1, Perham is back for more as the top-seeded team in the prestigious event this time around. The Yellowjackets are currently 27-2 and riding a 13-game winning streak into their second consecutive -- and overall -- appearance at the state tournament.

Meanwhile, Worthington is headed back to "state" for the first time since 1998 (fourth trip overall) and is also playing its best basketball of the season. Winners of 17 of their last 20 games, the Trojans are now 21-6 and fresh off four dominant victories -- including three straight by exactly 21 points over teams nicknamed the Cardinals (62-41 over Luverne, 72-51 over Fairmont and 64-43 over Redwood Valley) -- to claim the section title in impressive fashion.

Both teams have outstanding basketball traditions and are well-known for their defense -- especially this season. Perham has held its opponents to an average of 42.4 points per game throughout the entire year (second-best in Class AA and third-best in the whole state), while Worthington has allowed just 44.5 points per game during its recent tournament run.

And the teams are very familiar with each other -- despite the fact that they are separated by approximately 250 miles and a drive of more than four hours. Perham has competed in Worthington's Daily Globe-Trojan Holiday Classic for the past several years, making the long trek south over the Christmas vacation each winter to play a pair of high-quality tournament ballgames.

The Trojans and the Yellowjackets have met five times in the last eight seasons, with Perham winning four of the games -- including this year with a 64-52 victory in the first round. The Yellowjackets have played in the championship game of the tournament six times in that span, winning the title twice (in 2009 and 2010) and finishing as the runner-up on four different occasions (2004, 2005, 2007 and 2011).

"Perham has a great basketball tradition and is the defending state champs," summed up long-time Worthington head coach Ron Vorwald. "They are well-coached and fundamentally-sound, as they execute their offense very well and play absolutely terrific team defense. It's going to take a great effort on our part to beat them, but our guys are hungry and certainly ready for the challenge."

Defense drives Worthington's success

While Perham may well indeed be the best defensive team that Worthington will see all year, the Trojans have been getting the job done on that end of the floor in their own right -- particularly as of late.

In holding fifth-ranked Redwood Valley to a season-low 43 points in the section finals last Thursday night, Worthington displayed its defensive prowess. Featuring outstanding size throughout its lineup and a relentless approach to rebounding from top to bottom, the Trojans have made life difficult for their opponents.

"We have been putting the clamps on teams and are guarding people at a very high level right now," Vorwald said. "We have reached the next step in terms of our defensive intensity and are confident that we can play with and beat anybody because of that. We are playing with great energy and emotion, which has enabled us to get after rebounds and loose balls effectively, as well.

"We're playing extremely hard and doing all the little things that are necessary to win ballgames," added Vorwald. "We really are playing our best basketball at the right time and are now looking forward to competing with some of the best teams in the entire state. We have a lot of confidence and are anxious to play again and strive to keep getting better."

With post players Mitch Weg (6-8) and Morgan Traylor (6-5) putting up double-doubles on a consistent basis, the Trojans have been able to dominate in the low-post area for much of the season. Jon Reller (6-4) comes in off the bench to help bolster Worthington's ability to score, defend and rebound down low.

But Worthington's size doesn't end there, as Lucas Henning (6-3), Dan Wetering (6-3) and Jon Vorwald (6-2) give the Trojans a trio of tall players on the perimeter who do everything from handle the ball to knock down big shots -- in addition to defending and rebounding.

"Our guards also do a very good job of rebounding and have improved defensively as the season has progressed," Ron Vorwald said. "Another key aspect of our success has been the fact that we have taken care of the ball better and limited our turnovers late in the season. Our guards are doing a great job of valuing the ball and initiating our offense."

Spencer Grafing (6-3) and Marcus Potter (5-10) spark the Trojans as reserves, while Tyler Verdoorn (6-3), Will Dudley (6-1), Josh VanderVeen (5-9), Dylan Gravenhof (6-2), Tristan Sorenson (5-8) and Jacob Woll (6-4) are also important members of the 14-man roster.

"They are all great kids, on and off the court," Ron Vorwald said. "I've enjoyed coaching this group very much, as we've had great leadership from our five seniors -- Mitch Weg, Lucas Henning, Dan Wetering, Jon Reller and Tyler Verdoorn. We truly are a family on a mission."

Balanced Yellowjackets look to repeat

Jordan Anderson (16), Jordan Bruhn (14), Mike Wiskow (11), Mark Schumacher (10) and Jordan Cresap (nine) combined to score 60 of Perham's 64 points in the Yellowjackets' first meeting with the Trojans. Josh Nordick and Dan Cavanagh each added a basket in that game and are capable of scoring in double figures on any given night, as well.

"Perham is a well-balanced and disciplined basketball team with a lot of good players," Ron Vorwald said. "They have a little bit of everything from an athletic big man (6-7 Schumacher) to a very quick point guard (6-2 Bruhn) with a variety of other guys who can shoot and drive to the basket. They are an active team that cuts and screens constantly to free people for open looks, plus they pass the ball extremely well."

Ranked fourth in the final Class AA polls after starting the season at No. 1, Perham's only losses came to Ellsworth (71-57) in the championship game of the Trojan Holiday Classic Dec. 28 and to arch-rival Pelican Rapids (51-48) on the road Jan. 27.

In fact, the Yellowjackets haven't lost a game at home since Feb. 9, 2010. Perham's only loss last season came at Pelican Rapids in overtime by a final score of 52-47.

"I'm just so proud of these kids for handling things so well the last two seasons," Perham head coach Dave Cresap told LakesAreaSports.com after the Yellowjackets' 47-42 victory over Bagley in the section finals. "We were the underdog last year and had a lot of emotion going from the Zach Gabbard story. We've had the big target on our backs all year long this season, and I think the kids have persevered so well through a lot of different things to get back to this point."

Gabbard, who collapsed on the court in a game midway through last season, helped serve as an inspiration for Perham's run to the championship a year ago. He has been able to dress and warm-up with the team during games this season, as he continues to make a remarkable recovery from open heart surgery last January.

"We have a lot of resp Perham and their entire program," Ron Vorwald said. "This is going to be a great matchup between two familiar teams that will get after it defensively. It certainly helps both teams from a scouting and preparation perspective, as we both know what the other team likes to do and that type of thing.

"We're really looking forward to the challenge, as this will be a big test," Vorwald continued. "We are very appreciative of all of the support that we have received from our fans and the community since last Thursday, as this has been an exciting and enjoyable time for everybody involved with our team. But now we have to refocus and get ready to do some damage at the state tournament, as we have high expectations for ourselves going up there."

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