WARSAW – The Warsaw boys basketball team handled the adversity of a tough start to the season very well.
Now, their coach wants to see how they are able to handle success.
The Tigers, riding a five-game winning streak, have put themselves in contention for yet another Northern Lakes Conference championship.
Warsaw, which went 7-0 to win the NLC crown each of the past three seasons, sits tied atop the league standings with Northridge and Elkhart Memorial. That comes after the Tigers began NLC play with a 28-20 home loss to county rival Wawasee back on Dec. 15.
The Tigers, who are 8-7 overall, take the momentum of a vastly-improved stretch of play to Nappanee Friday night for a key conference clash with NorthWood. The Panthers have fallen to 2-2 in league action with back-to-back conference losses to Goshen and Northridge.
“I’m more concerned Friday night in our ability to handle success,” said Warsaw coach Doug Ogle, whose team lost seven of eight games before its current winning streak. “I want to see us keep our focus. I’m sure that NorthWood is not happy losing two in a row. You will see NorthWood play pretty well I think Friday night.”
Ogle, who admits that he likes a challenge, has seen a lot of growth and improvement from his team in the past six weeks.
“There have been several factors to our improvement,” remarked Ogle. “We really had no varsity experience, or very little, except for Nolan (Groninger) and Zach (Riley) coming into this season. It’s taken a while for other players to gain varsity experience and as they have that’s been helpful to us.
“Our defense has really improved a lot. I hate to say it, but our defense at the start of the year was bad. It was bad in every way, inside, outside, transition. We had to have growth there and we have.”
The Tigers have done a lot of things well during their current win streak. They are only allowing 41.8 points-per-game during the stretch, have a plus nine margin per game in the rebounding department and have outscored their five foes 73-28 from the free throw line. They are also shooting less from beyond the 3-point line and defending the arc better as well.
“We were shooting way too many 3-pointers early in the season and it’s been very helpful that we have shot less threes and more free throws during this stretch,” commented Ogle.
Junior guard Nolan Groninger has led the way in the resurgence. He has averaged 15.8 ppg. during the winning streak and has had 47 assists to just 16 turnovers in the last eight games. Groninger leads his team at 13.1 ppg. for the season and is also first in assists with 77 and steals with 15. He has scored in double figures in nine straight games.
“Nolan has been a key for us,” Ogle said. “His play has been instrumental in our improvement as a team. He’s been steadier. His assist to turnover ratio has been great in our last eight games. He’s creating offense for others and still scoring. He’s become more patient, tightened up his game and played on balance.”
Zach Riley has also stepped up as a major force in the winning streak. The senior, who along with Groninger played a lot a year ago on an 18-10 team that featured eight seniors, is averaging 10.8 ppg. during the last five games. Riley has scored in double figures in five of the last eight games. The duo of 6-7 junior forward Tyler Metzinger and 6-5 sophomore forward Brian Elliott have also been key in the stretch. Both are averaging seven points per game in the streak and Elliott had a career-high 12 in a win at Concord last Friday night. Sophomore guard Blake Marsh has also made an impact since being promoted from the JV team, where he was leading the squad in scoring, assists and steals. The Tigers are 5-1 since his addition to a full-time varsity role.
Ogle points to a 58-49 conference road win at Northridge back on Jan. 5 as the impetus for the turnaround.
“The key was getting the win at Northridge,” remarked Ogle. “We put a lot of times into that one and that was a big one. The Fishers win was a nice boost for us heading into the Northridge game, but to me that was the key game we needed.”
NorthWood will look to get back in the win column after losing 48-43 at Goshen last Friday night. That followed a 58-55 home loss to Northridge in triple overtime on Jan. 12. The Panthers, who lost to Warsaw 54-37 last season and have dropped three in a row to the Tigers, sit at 8-4 overall.
Caleb Lung has been the leader of a balanced NorthWood offense. The senior is averaging 12.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. The duo of junior Kaden Gongwer and senior Brad Delio each average 9.5 ppg. with junior Nick Bean (6.7) and seniors DeAndre Smart (6.0) and Caleb Glick (5.3) in the mix. Gongwer leads the team with 22 treys, while Delio and Bean each have 14. Glick has returned to play the last two contests after missing four games due to a knee injury suffered in a game versus Jimtown back on Dec. 12.
The Tigers sit atop the league standings at 3-1 with Northridge and Memorial. NorthWood and Plymouth are both 2-2 with Goshen, Concord and Wawasee all 1-3.
Warsaw will finish out the NLC slate at Elkhart Memorial Feb. 1 and at home versus Plymouth Feb. 9. Northridge plays at Plymouth Friday, then hosts Wawasee Feb. 1 and Concord Feb. 9. Memorial hosts Goshen Friday night, entertains the Tigers Feb. 1 and plays at NorthWood Feb. 9.