Character shined bright Monday night in Moorhead as the top seed Hillcrest Academy went toe-to-toe with one of the state's most underrated and highest achieving teams. Through head coach Gregg Preston's leadership, the Hillcrest Academy coaches equipped a team that was unranked in the preseason to stand as the team to beat entering playoffs. The Comet's work ethic and personal maturity was on full display as they closed their season with an 80-63 playoff loss to Lake Park-Audubon.
As the Comets marched onto the court Monday night they hoped to continue to develop the definition of character, work habits, and unselfish play that Preston is bestowing on the 2015-16 Comet team. There was no shortage of excitement, with a packed gymnasium following the Comet road all season. Next to the Comet fans sat nearly the entire population of Lake Park and Audubon, Minnesota, riding a wave of 20+ straight wins that the Lake Park-Audubon (LPA) Raiders amassed after a slow start to their season.
A hush fell over the gym before the national anthem, that was quickly interrupted as the starting line-ups were called. From that point on a swell of voices flooded the gym as both LPA and Hillcrest put on one of the best shows in boy's basketball this season.
After the opening tip Hillcrest resettled their feet. The new challenge facing the Comets presented as a 6'9" Junior, Jesse Bergh. The Junior post has one season of basketball under his belt, but ran the floor like it was second nature. Hillcrest placed Senior standout Chris Tungseth on the post, knowing that Chris' athleticism would force LPA to work hard for buckets in the paint.
Throughout much of the first half Hillcrest controlled the game. Leaping out to a 26-12 lead, the Comets displayed aggressive defense that forced LPA to regroup. Bergh struggled to get his feet for the Raiders, and Junior Mitch Hall went cold midway through the first half as the Comets worked up a comfortable lead.
But the tables turned for the Comets as the clock neared the nine minute mark. A series of fouls put Hillcrest in double-bonus. With each aggressive defensive stand Hillcrest found themselves lining up to watch LPA shoot free throws. LPA hit 25 of 33 free throws before the final buzzer sounded.
A main recipient of the foul calls was Senior Chris Tungseth, whose aggressive play felt muted, scoring 7 points on the night and sitting out much of the game with four fouls. With Chris in trouble, Junior Kyler Newman rose to the occasion, leading a Hillcrest drive with expert shooting and lane penetration. His offensive prowess put LPA on their heals as they called a time out to regroup with Hillcrest doubling their score. However, Newman soon found himself in foul trouble too, and a defensive switch saw LPA go on a scoring rampage as Hillcrest now found themselves reworking their scheme to keep key players in the game.
When the Comets emerged from the locker room following a halftime pep-talk, there was a new resolve on their faces. Junior Sean McGuire started things off for Hillcrest, hitting a 3-pointer in the first seconds of the second half. McGuire added 14 points to the Comet total, while Junior Kyler Newman fought to keep Hillcrest close, adding a game high 30 points to the Comet line.
Throughout the second half fouls remained a hurdle for the Comets. Senior Chris Tungseth sat down for much of the second half, waiting for the green light from Coach Preston after Tungseth earned his 4th foul. Newman, McGuire, Reggie Undseth, and Tommy Thompson worked the front court to keep Hillcrest close. The Junior line carried the mantle as their senior leader waited for an opportune to time to rejoin the game. Sophomore Nate Frustol stepped in to guard the 6'9" Bergh.
Frustol's work on Bergh was hard fought. The LPA stud fought over Frustol for 13 rebounds, as Newman and Thompson worked to attack the rim for the Comets and met Bergh, who earned 5 blocks.
In the waning minutes of the game Hillcrest instituted a smothering man-to-man defense. LPA stumbled, failing to regain control of the game in the subsequent minutes where Hillcrest earned quick buckets off timely steals. However, the Comets remained cold from behind the arc, and with LPA playing a near perfect game, Hillcrest struggled to surmount a formidable comeback.
LPA missed only four shots in the second half, shooting 83% from the field. The Raiders needed a perfect game, and for Hillcrest to have an off-night shooting, in order to pull out an upset of the undefeated Comets.
With the final seconds ticking off the clock LPA found Bergh for an open court slam dunk. The snapping of the rim sent a shock wave through the stands as LPA's community cheered their team to victory. With players rushing on the court the Comets cooly walked to their bench. Lining up in classic fashion, the Comets congratulated LPA on a hard fought and nearly perfect game.
The Comet season closes with a host of records. Gregg Preston earned his 400th victory alongside Chris Tungseth setting the school single game scoring record and posting his 1000th point. The Comets moved from unranked to beat two top ten teams on their way to becoming one of the state's favored teams. They won two conferences and will likely post a number of players to the all conference and all section teams. None of the accolades seem to do this team justice, though. A clearly visible brotherhood developed for the Comets, who seem to enjoy garnering an assist rather than scoring a bucket on the court. The brotherhood was built around team devotions, which propelled the young men to lead their school. The boys were known to call out names in the locker room of people they were praying for, holding special gatherings with the girls basketball team where they shared appreciated attributes of individual players. The girls' team referred to the gatherings as, "warm fuzzies," found leaving the joint meetings boasting of how much they appreciate Hillcrest and the boy's basketball team.
Few will see the accolades the Comets boys aspired for. Leading a school in prayer and positive affirmation doesn't display well in a trophy case. But if the community could visit each of the Comet young men, they would realize that the trophy isn't what they played for. Joining together, building friendships that focused on Jesus Christ, is what they appreciate. Basketball was a tool for that. As Coach Gregg Preston stated in recalling the year, "We had such a tremendous group of guys that overachieved on so many levels this year. The character, work habits, unselfishness, and the excitement by which they played the game and lived life together throughout this basketball year was an honor for me to be included in from start to finish."