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Packer boys not surprised by hot start

West Fargo’s Brady Heisler charges past Wahpeton’s Carson Zarak during the Tuesday, Jan. 14, basketball game at West Fargo High School. Carrie Snyder / West Fargo Pioneer

Before the season started in mid-December, the fresh-faced Packer boys’ basketball team was projected to finish fourth in the Eastern Dakota Conference.

Almost halfway through the regular season, those that picked against them are eating their words.

The 5-3 Packers (6-1 in the conference, thanks to a blowout victory over Valley City worth two points) are currently tied for first in the conference, largely due to solid defense and a strong rebounding prowess.

“We have rebounded the ball really well,” head coach Greg Limke said. “That has been our biggest attribute, especially on the offensive boards. I like the aggressive mindset we have had there. We’ve gotten a lot better in that area.”

So has this strong start to the season surprised the Packers? Not really.

“I thought we could do it,” senior Forward Griffin Sauvageau said. “We all had high expectations. Everyone just saw a young team. They didn’t realize that we have a lot of good juniors and sophomores.”

What else has made them successful this season? According to their coach, it’s an open ear and a positive mindset.

“I really like their energy and enthusiasm,” Limke said. “We certainly make plenty of mistakes, but their willingness to be coached and corrected is important as the season goes on. We keep looking toward that, knowing there is always something to improve. That is key for us.”

According to Limke, a team’s play style develops as the season progresses, and so far, his team has developed a fluid, adjustment-based style, allowing them to adapt to each specific opponent.

“We started the season by scoring in the 90s, but we haven’t seen that since,” Limke said. “We are not playing super fast-paced, but I think we are able to adjust from night to night. We can grind it out at times, and we can run the break at times. I like the flexibility. We can experiment with a few different options, and that has been a lot of fun.”

While the team’s defense has been shouldering the load, their offense has seen some problems, most notably in terms of shot selection.

“To me, a bad shot is almost like a turnover,” Limke said. “Taking your shot at the right time is probably the hardest thing to learn in basketball, and it is one of the hardest things to teach. As those skills develop, you will have more opportunities.”

According to Limke, the Packers also need to take better care of the ball. They are averaging almost 16 turnovers per game, and too often rely on one-handed passes and catches.

They have also struggled from the line, earning a subpar free-throw percentage of 59.7.

“That is a disappointment -- there is no question about that -- and that has to improve,” Limke said. “We still have a younger group getting acclimated to the pressure of the varsity game. We are focusing on the process of getting better each day. Right now, I am really enjoying coming to practice and seeing their development. This team has come a long way, and that’s fun to see.”

One other subtle thing that needs work, according to Limke, is the team’s lack of recognition of great plays made by teammates.

“What I am looking for is when a guy on our team makes a great hustle play -- takes a charge, etc. -- will everyone on our team cheer for that guy?” Limke said. “Will our bench get up and acknowledge the effort of their teammate? That is the kind of stuff we are looking for. We are better at that, but we have a long way to go.”

Despite the team’s faults, the players feel that they will work themselves out, and shouldn’t affect the team’s record in a major way.

“I think we are going to keep on climbing,” Sauvageau said. “We are going to get closer as a team and keep moving forward.”

The Packers host second-place Fargo Davies on Friday at 7:30 p.m. They share the conference lead with the Eagles.