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Three of the 20 teams in action at this week’s state tournament hail from the Cloverbelt with two from the West (McDonell, Osseo-Fairchild) and one from the East (Marshfield Columbus).

The Thunder punched their ticket to state for the first time since 1992 with an 80-73 win over Clear Lake on Sunday in a Division 4 sectional final in Hudson. Osseo-Fairchild is the fifth different Western Cloverbelt team to advance to the state tournament since 2009 — joining McDonell, Thorp, Eau Claire Regis and Fall Creek — and sixth since 2006 when Altoona advanced to the Division 2 tourney.

Add to that Stanley-Boyd being one win away from the Division 4 state tournament in 2017 and you have a conference with plenty of success across the board.

Osseo-Fairchild and McDonell finished first and second, respectively, in the league standings during the regular season and Osseo-Fairchild beat Fall Creek in the sectional semifinal round.

“That’s what makes McDonell so tough and Fall Creek so tough. They play those guys all year and they beat up on each other and that helps you get by some of these tougher teams from the other conferences in the state as well,” Osseo-Fairchild coach Tim Popple said.

Popple noted the conference’s strength from top-to-bottom. The conference-winning Thunder had to work for a 57-50 win over Cadott near the end of the regular season on Feb. 11 in Cadott. The Hornets went winless in Western Cloverbelt play, but had a winning record (6-4) in nonconference competition that included an upset in the opening round of the Division 4 playoffs when the 12th-seeded Hornets stunned fifth-seeded Spring Valley 70-57. The Cardinals finished second to Colfax in the Dunn-St. Croix Conference standings in the regular season.

“The Western Cloverbelt is an extremely difficult conference to win in, especially on the road,” Popple said.

Veteran help

Popple’s program makes its first trip to state in 27 years and opens play on Thursday evening in the Division 4 semifinals when the third-seeded Thunder battle second-seeded Oshkosh Lourdes at 8:15 p.m.

The coach for Osseo-Fairchild’s last trip to state in 1992 was Warren Dahl and he’ll be on the bench alongside Popple as one of his assistant coaches. Dahl, the father of longtime New Auburn boys coach Keenan Dahl, is a Wisconsin Football Coaches Association and Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Famer. Warren has coached basketball and track and field for more than 40 years apiece with more than 20 years of baseball coaching experience as well.

Dahl, Kelly Mulhern and Mark Vold provide the sixth-year Osseo-Fairchild coach with plenty of help.

“I think about 90 percent of whatever I learned about basketball, Warren has taught me,” Popple said. “I’ve said to several people, I’ve got a four-member coaching staff and I’m the fourth-best coach on that squad. That’s not even fibbing a little bit.”

Defense drives Northwestern

Northwestern is the first team from the Heart O’North Conference to advance to the state tournament since the Tigers advanced to back-to-back Division 2 tourneys in 2009 and 2010.

First-year Northwestern coach Nolan Graff’s team beat Wisconsin Dells in overtime 75-68 on Saturday in the Division 3 sectional finals to advance to state for the fourth time in program history. It was the second overtime game of the playoffs for the Tigers, who had to outlast a Bloomer rally in the regional finals.

The Blackhawks tied the game at the end of regulation on a basket by Bradley Sarauer before Northwestern earned a 61-55 win for the regional championship.

Graff credited his team’s defense for the Tigers’ success. Northwestern has held three of four playoff opponents to 55 points or fewer and Graff said his team takes notes from the style of defense coach Tony Bennett teaches at the University of Virginia — packing the lane to limit penetration while also providing plenty of ball pressure.

“We really took a hard look at what Tony Bennett does at Virginia and want to implement that kind of pack line defense into our own system,” Graff said.

The Tigers (21-5) defense will be put to the test on Thursday in their state semifinal matchup against top-seeded Martin Luther (23-3). The Spartans have four players averaging at least 10.2 points per game, led by senior guard Trequan Carrington at 19.3 points per game.

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Chippewa Herald sports editor

Chippewa Herald Sports Editor