Dedication led Menahga boys basketball team to successful 15-11 season

With the nucleus back from last year's team that finished with a 6-20 record, Jeremy Nordick was expecting the Menahga boys basketball team to produce a winning season this winter.

Derek Pihlaja
Derek Pihlaja (15) and Marlin Aho (3) led the Menahga boys basketball team to a 15-11 record this season.

With the nucleus back from last year's team that finished with a 6-20 record, Jeremy Nordick was expecting the Menahga boys basketball team to produce a winning season this winter.

The Braves didn't disappoint. Sparked by a successful summer season, the Braves made major improvements by moving up to third place in the Park Region Conference standings with a 7-5 record and finishing with a 15-11 overall mark.

"We did have high expectations going into the season. The kids had a pretty busy off-season of basketball. They really worked to improve and I thought that it showed this season with our nine-game improvement in the win column," said Nordick. "I thought we were competitive in a lot of games last year, but we just couldn't get that one shot to fall or get that big stop. This year we were able to rely on a couple of guys to put the ball in the hole for us and I thought our team defense really got tough in a few of our close games that could have went either way."

The Braves opened the season with wins over Hill City (69-56) and Browerville (70-62) before opening the Park Region Conference schedule with an 83-70 loss to Sebeka.

Victories over Park Rapids (83-58) and Pillager (67-38) were followed with a 76-67 loss to Cass Lake-Bena.


Menahga opened the Concordia College Tournament with a 77-41 loss to Park Christian and a 66-61 loss to Lake Park-Audubon before defeating Rothsay 72-25 to end 2009 with a 5-4 record.

The Braves returned from the holiday break with a 66-53 loss to Nevis, a 63-48 win over Henning, a 72-59 win over Northland Remer, a 65-41 loss to Bertha-Hewitt, a 100-52 victory over Verndale, a 69-44 loss to Sebeka, a 62-51 win over Pine River-Backus, a 76-72 loss to New York Mills and a 70-28 win over Laporte. Entering February, the Braves were 10-8.

Menahga ended the regular season with a 72-67 win over Henning, an 81-47 win over Pillager, a 44-34 loss to Bertha-Hewitt, an 89-49 win over New York Mills, a 76-37 win over Verndale and a 78-67 loss to Eagle Valley.

Sebeka won the conference title with a 12-0 record while Bertha-Hewitt finished at 10-2. Menahga took third with a 7-5 mark, followed by New York Mills at 6-6, Henning at 5-7, Pillager at 2-10 and Verndale at 0-12. Sebeka went on to earn runner-up honors at the state Class A tournament and ended the season with a 30-3 record. B-H finished at 22-4.

During the season, the Braves lost to three teams rated in the final state Class A poll: Sebeka (No. 3), Bertha-Hewitt (No. 6) and Park Christian (No. 10). Cass Lake-Bena was also ranked during the season and qualified for the state tournament.

Entering the Section 5A playoffs, the Braves earned the No. 6 seed in the West and opened with an 87-65 win over No. 11 Verndale before being eliminated with a 77-61 loss to No. 3 Nevis.

"We were hoping to get a bit further in the tourney, but we ran into a good Nevis team that was playing very well down the stretch," said Nordick.

For the season, the Braves averaged 67.2 points a game while allowing 58.4 points a night. Menahga shot 47 percent from the field (679 for 1,446), 31.8 percent on 3-pointers (100 for 314) and 60 percent at the free throw line (288 for 480).


Leading the Braves were four players who scored in double figures: seniors Derek Pihlaja and Marlin Aho and juniors Kasey Tyge and Tom Gruchow.

Pihlaja led the Braves in scoring at 19.3 points a game. In 26 games, Pihlaja shot 54.8 percent from the field (190 for 347), 40.5 percent on 3-pointers (45 for 111) and 71.3 percent from the free throw line (77 for 108) in scoring 501 points. Pihlaja was second on the team with 101 assists and 70 steals while grabbing 62 rebounds.

Aho was second on the team in scoring at 14.7 points a night and led the Braves with 305 rebounds (11.7 per game) and 76 steals. Aho shot 56.3 percent from the field (156 for 277) and 65 percent at the line (65 for 100) in scoring 383 points. Aho also had 69 assists and 13 blocked shots in 26 games.

Tyge played in 22 games and averaged 12.6 points a game. Tyge shot 36 percent from the field (104 for 289), 30.4 percent on 3-pointers (41 for 135) and 75.7 percent at the line (28 for 37). Tyge scored 277 points and led the Braves with 110 assists. Tyge also had 74 rebounds and 55 steals.

Gruchow also averaged 12.6 points a game while grabbing 8.8 rebounds a night. Gruchow scored 327 points while shooting 50.4 percent from the field (130 for 258) and 49.3 percent at the line (66 for 134). Gruchow was second on the team with 229 rebounds while adding 60 steals, 42 assists and 13 blocks in 26 games.

Also helping the Braves to a winning season were senior Matt Skoog; juniors Ben Skoog, Derek Hendrickson and Sean Dormanen; and sophomore Markus Tolkkinen.

Tolkkinen played in 25 games and tallied 80 points, 36 assists, 31 rebounds and 20 steals.

Hendrickson played in 16 games and had 41 points and 24 rebounds.


Ben Skoog compiled 61 points, 61 rebounds, 42 assists and 23 steals in 24 games.

Matt Skoog played in 18 games and had 25 points, 40 rebounds, 30 assists and 19 steals.

Dormanen played in 25 games and tallied 33 points, 18 steals, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.

Also seeing some varsity action this season were junior Wade Skoog, sophomores Justin Luedke and Rylan Aho, and freshmen Tanner Schwartz and Brandon Junes.

"The senior class will be especially hard for me to let go of because they were freshmen when I came to Menahga. All three of them have meant so much in turning Menahga back into a contender in Section 5A. They have been just tremendous for us on and off the floor," said Nordick. "Marlin came to us last year in his first season of organized basketball and just kept getting better and better each time he stepped on the floor. That is a testament to his work ethic as well as his love for the game of basketball. Derek has been a staple in our program since he was able to dribble a basketball. He is a true definition of a gym rat. He loves being in the gym and working to improve his game. I think the other guys really fed off of his passion for the game. He really wanted to win this year and I think he sacrificed his points to help this team win. It just shows what a great leader he has become. Matt has also been a leader in our program for multiple seasons. He is another guy that young guys can rally look up to as far as how you conduct yourself as a student athlete. His leadership on and off the floor has been outstanding for us. Matt wasn't always going to score big in the scorebook, but did so many of the little things well that don't show up in the stat sheet. All three of these guys will truly be missed and will always be a big part of Menahga basketball."

Looking ahead to next season, the Braves will have to replace three key players. However, Nordick is counting on the returning players to pick up the slack and lead the Braves to another successful season.

"The expectations are always high for our program. I think there is already excitement for next season with the senior group that we've got coming back next year. I look for some young guys to really step up as well. I know they will have a busy summer of hoops coming up," said Nordick. "We will need to really work on our strength and conditioning in the off-season. The top teams in the section are very athletic and have some guys coming back, so we'll need to really work hard to improve next season. I'm anxious to see who will step up and take the reins as our team leaders now that we lose three very good ones."

1982 Dawson-Boyd High School graduate
1987 Moorhead State University graduate
Sports reporter for Park Rapids Enterprise since 1987
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