When the Norris boys basketball team flipped the calendar to 2019, it also seemed to also flip the "on" switch for the Titans.
The Titans were 1-8 heading into January, tortured by a string of close losses (five by five points or fewer) and a brutal schedule that included six teams that have been rated in the top 10 in either Class B or C-1 at some point this season.
Since then, Norris is 9-3 and has climbed back into contention for a wildcard spot into the district finals. The Titans (10-11), No. 10 for the third straight week in the Lincoln Journal Star Class B ratings, are 14th in the Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA) wildcard standings heading into their home game against Crete on Tuesday.
The eight subdistrict champions and the top eight remaining teams in the wildcard standings make up the 16 schools that advance to the district finals on Feb. 23. The other three teams in Norris’ subdistrict scheduled to be played Feb. 18 and 19 are No. 1 Lincoln Pius X, ratings-contender Waverly and Beatrice.
“If someone would’ve told me when we were 1-8 that we’d be in the hunt for a wildcard here at the end, I would’ve told them they were crazy,” first-year Norris coach Matt Shelsta said.
“A lot of people wrote us off at 1-8, but our kids never gave up on the season and they deserve all the credit,” Shelsta added. “Our seniors could’ve checked in at that point, trying to adjust to their third coach in four years. But these guys have a lot of mental toughness, and once they started seeing some rewards from the hard work they’ve put in, their confidence just grew.
“They love each other and they love basketball. It shows on the court.”
It all started with a two-point win over Waverly at home on Jan. 4, six days after falling to the Vikings in the third-place game at the Waverly Holiday Tournament.
The Titans knocked off defending-state champion and No. 3 York 46-43 on Jan. 15 when Dukes’ all-stater Brady Danielson was sidelined with an ankle injury. The momentum continued into the Eastern Midlands Conference tournament where the Titans beat Blair in the first round and handed Class A Gretna just its second loss in 16 games this winter with a 43-27 triumph in the semifinals.
Norris faces a rematch at Gretna Friday to close out the regular season.
Norris lost to No. 8 Bennington in the finals, its second loss this season to the Badgers. The Titans’ other loss since December is to Class B No. 6 Omaha Skutt 62-48 last Thursday.
The Titans bounced back on Saturday to hand C-1 No. 5 Lincoln Christian a 20-point loss, avenging a 16-point Christian victory over them in the first round of the Waverly Holiday Tournament.
Two common themes in Norris’ resurrection in the last six weeks have been balanced scoring and defense, both of which were prevalent Saturday.
Norris shut out Christian 18-0 in the second quarter to grab control. Eleven Titans scored in the contest, led by senior guard Jay Knudsen with 11 points. Three others chipped in eight points each — 6-3 senior Skyler Schwaninger, 6-2 senior Harrison Boe and 6-3 sophomore Treybell Deveaux.
Knudsen, Schwaninger, Boe and 6-2 junior Aidan Oerter are returning starters from a year ago, while 6-4 senior post Kixten Misko also saw meaningful playing time last season. Boe is Norris’ leading scorer this season, averaging 8.9 points per game.