Ask Central Lakes College Raiders men's and women's basketball coaches Jim Russell and Dennis Eastman if they like upcoming road trips to Mesabi and Vermilion and they'll give you a one-word response: "No."
"These are long road trips," Eastman said. "Mesabi is a tough place to win and play at. It'll test our character. Ely is a 3 1/2-hour drive so it does have an effect. We have to be able to step off the bus and be ready to play."
Raider teams travel to Mesabi for 6 and 8 p.m. games Wednesday and to Vermilion for 1 and 3 p.m. games Saturday.
After splitting their first two North Division games, Eastman is looking for his team to come away with at least one win.
"We want to sneak out a win," said Eastman, "and these are two games where we can sneak one out. The intensity we had against Rainy River, we have to have that every game. If we do that, we can play with anybody."
The game against Mesabi may be the game CLC could sneak away with. The Lady Norse have had trouble staying healthy and at one point had only six players.
One player Mesabi will be leaning on is Nikki Pfeutzenreuter, who's leading the North with 12 rebounds per game.
Vermilion, however, will be a more formidable opponent. Tashawna Williams is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds while guard Melissa Lougheed is averaging 14.4 points, 4.4 steals and 5 assists.
"Vermilion will run a 2-2-1 press that they're very effective at," Eastman said. "I watched them in our tournament and they lost to Ridgewater by five, which was the same as us. We always play good up there and we'll need to handle our nerves."
Raider forward Val Diedrich will once again shoulder much of the scoring load. The sophomore is averaging 16 points and close to seven boards.
But the pressure to score may be lighter for Diedrich with the emergence of forward Bobbi VanWechel. The freshman has stepped up recently, scoring 19 points against Hibbing and 15 against Rainy River. VanWechel is averaging close to 10 points.
The Raider men's team (6-4) will have its work cut out for it this week as well.
Mesabi boasts one of the top players in the state in Angelo Griffin and its offense is averaging more than 80 points.
Griffin is leading the North in scoring with a 25-point average while shooting at a 76-percent clip from the floor. He is also grabbing 13.4 rebounds a game.
"First, we need to keep him off the boards," Russell said of Griffin. "He gets a lot of his points off the boards. We'll need to deny him in the post and make Mesabi's other players score."
Vermilion will pose a different problem for the Raiders. The Ironmen have three of top 10 scorers in the North.
Travis Gardner leads the way with 22 points and four assists a game. Gardner is also shooting 54 percent from behind the 3-point line. Dustin Mittelsteadt adds 18 points and 14 rebounds a game while Rashad Lee pours in 15 points and collects five assists per game.
"We have to play good transition defense," Russell said of stopping Vermilion. "We'll have to make them play a half-court game where they're really predictable. We'll need to take away the easy baskets and have some success shooting."
Guard Daryl Burch, who's leading the Raiders with 10.1 points per game, has provided a deft touch from the outside. Add guard Deejay Mayfield's 9.2 points and the Raiders are formidable in the backcourt.
But the Raiders will have to employ their trademark defense this week if they plan to come home with a victory or two. They are still the top defensive team in the North, allowing a paltry 69.5 points per game.
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