As juniors, players like DJ Kraemer and Nick Schwen didn’t see much court time last season as a senior-dominated Brainerd Warrior team embarked on an enchanted run to the Class 4A state tournament.
Kraemer and Schwen have capitalized on their opportunity to start the season’s first two games. In Tuesday night’s Central Lakes Conference game at Brainerd High School, they combined for 23 points to help the Warriors to a 72-51 win over the Rocori Spartans.
“I thought DJ played a real smart game,” Warriors coach Scott Stanfield said. “He hit his shots when he was open. He’s a good shooter. When he’s open, we expect that shot to go up and for him to drill it.
“We challenged Nick at halftime that he’s got to lead us out there and play a little bit better and finish his shots. Nick took that to heart. He didn’t back down. I thought in the second half he was probably the difference-maker in a lot of areas.”
The 6-foot-3 Schwen, who was shut out in the first half, scored 11 in the second as he made all four of his field goals and 2 of 4 free throws.
“It’s a great experience,” Schwen said. “We’re really young, but everyone works out there. We need every single person on the team. It’s fun getting around the young kids, making a bond, even with everyone we have.
“We didn’t back down out there today. We’re hoping to get the next one (Friday). We’re going to push through it. We’re not stopping.”
The 5-10 Kraemer buried 4 of 6 threes and scored nine of his 12 points in the second half.
“Obviously last year we had a good group of seniors,” Kraemer said. “We just worked our butts off in practice, and prepared this summer for our opportunity. We’re trying to make the most of it.”
A group of football players joined the basketball team Monday after their runner-up finish in the 5A state championship game last weekend. Among them were Isaiah Smith with five points and Logan McElfresh and Logan Davis with three apiece.
Stanfield also saw “substantial improvement” in the players who suffered a 66-43 season-opening loss Nov. 26 at Grand Rapids.
“The kids weren’t quite as nervous,” Stanfield said. “We had our football kids back in, that provided a lot of depth. I thought Isaiah came in and did a really nice job, Logan McElfresh, all those guys, Conor Gessell, Logan Davis comes in and pops a three. That’s just the tip of what those kids can do.
“When we get everyone going, we can play 10-12 guys and we’re going to run some teams off the court. I’m really excited. We should be a pretty good team again.”
Kraemer and Schwen also embraced the return of their football teammates.
“It’s huge,” Kraemer said. “It helps when you can play five out, five in.”
“We need them all,” Schwen said. “We missed them during football season. “We’re glad to have them back.”
In the first half, the teams went back and forth until Brainerd began capitalizing on Spartans’ turnovers, scoring nine points off of them. A 16-point Warrior run in a 4-plus minute stretch put Brainerd ahead 28-14. Rocori closed the half with a 6-point burst to trail 31-21 at the intermission.
The Spartans trailed just 58-51 with about three minutes left when the Warriors scored the game’s last 11 points.
Junior Jacob Russell added 10 points for Brainerd.
Rocori 21 30 — 51
Brainerd 31 41 — 72
Brad Fabel 26, Luke Asfeld 2, Josh Peterson 3, Cole Field 5, Max Nelson 3, Skippy Virchow 6, Ryan Hennen 5, Austin Overman 1. FG 14-41 (34 percent). FT 18-27 (67 percent). 3-point: 5-22 (23 percent). Turnovers: 24.
DJ Kraemer 12, Logan Madsen 9, Geoff Sheflo 5, Nick Schwen 11, Kobe Ahonen 8, Chris Pederson 6, Logan Davis 3, Logan McElfresh 3, Isaiah Smith 5, Jacob Russell 10. FG 24-46 (52 percent). FT 17-29 (59 percent). 3-point: 8-19 (42 percent). Turnovers: 19.
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.