Fertile-Beltrami is young, talented and in contention once again

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
Fertile-Beltrami coach Neil Steffes talks to his team before tip-off against Crookston on Feb. 23. The Falcons are 10-2 this season after graduating eight seniors from last season's 25-win team.

On Tuesday, the Fertile-Beltrami boys' basketball team shook off a middling first half to race past Crookston, 73-57, and improve to 10-2 on the season. Despite graduating eight seniors from last year's 25-win squad, the Falcons are back among the leaders in Section 8A.

It's okay if you didn't see this coming. Neil Steffes, Fertile-Beltrami's head coach, didn't either.

It's one thing to take a team with two freshman starters and only one senior and not miss a beat. It's another to do it in the time of COVID-19, which meant the Falcons didn't get to go to summer camps or play in summer leagues that normally aid the process of coming together. This winter, they've been learning on the fly.

"We have some ups and downs with those guys, but overall with their progress and things they're doing, we're pretty happy," Steffes said Tuesday. "Being (10-2), I didn't expect that, especially with how young they were. But the kids have done some really nice things and improved as we've gone along."

Fertile-Beltrami fell in its season opener to Mahnomen-Waubun, the No. 1 team in Class A. It lost to 11-2 Win-E-Mac last Friday. In between, the Falcons won nine straight, including double-digit victories over Section 8AA foes East Grand Forks and Bagley. Their success can be credited to mix of holdovers from last year and young talent that has Steffes dreaming on what could be next.

Junior Everett Balstad is one of two main returners from last season for the Fertile-Beltrami boys' basketball team.

On the court, they're led by juniors Everett Balstad and Rylin Petry, the two returners that saw real playing time last season. Petry, the point guard, started at quarterback for the Fertile-Beltrami football team last fall and fills the same role on the hardwood. He scored 24 points against the Pirates, showing the quickness to get to the hole and strength to finish through contact.

"He's really our leader," Steffes said. "How he goes is kind of how we go."

Balstad scored 14 points Tuesday, igniting the Falcons by jumping passing lanes and coming up with steals on a series of second-half possessions. He's one of the team's best defenders, according to Steffes, and has come along on offense too.

Freshmen starters Caiden Swenby and Derek Sorenson are the youngest members of the varsity squad, but among Fertile-Beltrami's most important players. Sorenson, who's averaging about 17 points per game, opens up the court with his sharp shooting. Swenby can score as well, but brings good court vision, according to Steffes.

"Those four are kind of our big scorers," Steffes said of Petry, Balstad, Swenby and Sorenson.

Juniors Austin Bjerk and Tysen Stuhaug, neither of whom played any varsity last season, are the Falcons' main post players. While they aren't big bucket-getters, Bjerk and Stuhaug play an integral role with their hustle and toughness in the paint.

Junior Austin Bjerk is one of the Falcons' most important players down low.

"They don't get a lot of credit," Steffes said. "But they do a lot of little things that nobody sees."

Since 2011, Fertile-Beltrami has had just two losing seasons, and has gone 158-93 during that span. It's won 64 games over the last three seasons, and took No. 3 Ada-Borup to the wire in the Section 8A West sub-section final last March.

At times, Steffes admits, that past success has made him impatient. While he isn't expecting a juggernaut with this group, he understands that there's a high standard in place.

But he's fought against the impulse to criticize, and tries to coach this year's group for what it is. He's had to be more tolerant of youthful mistakes, and has walked the fine line between excessively coddling his players and coming down too harshly on them. Essentially, he's letting kids be kids.

The Falcons have had up-and-downs this season, and Steffes understands where they've come from. He pointed to Sorenson, who has struggled with his shot as of late and scored just four points against Crookston. He recognizes this for what it is: a mere slump that doesn't fully reflect who Sorenson is as a player.

"I really think a lot of it is just keeping them where their confidence is up," Steffes said. "A lot of times, especially the young guys, they make one or two mistakes and they're hanging their head. The biggest challenge is getting these guys to be confident and getting them to mesh with one another."

"How he goes is kind of how we go," Falcons coach Neil Steffes said of junior guard Rylin Petry.

Steffes is optimistic when he looks at the road ahead. He thinks his team can run the table for the rest of the regular season and earn the No. 1 seed in their subsection. That means home-court advantage up until the section title game, with the winner of that game going to the state tournament.

"My expectation is that we're gonna be playing for a section championship at the end of the year which would be a great accomplishment for these guys," Steffes said. "... Once you get there, anything can happen."

For Fertile-Beltrami to get to that point, where it'd be playing for its first state tournament appearance since 2001, is a lot to ask. Steffes knows it — after all, he probably would have laughed off the possibility before the season began.

"But the way we've played and some of the things we've done," he said, "I think that should be our expectation."

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730 or sports editor Jacob Shames at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

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