MARSHALL - Carbon copies.
Take a close glance at the Fairmont and Redwood Valley boys basketball rosters, and the similarities are uncanny.
Both programs - nicknamed the Cardinals - sport 23-5 overall records heading into tonight's 8 p.m. Section 3AA championship game at the R/A Facility on the Southwest Minnesota State University Campus in Marshall.
GETTING DEFENSIVE — Fairmont’s Jay Ruen (back left) defends against Redwood Valley’s Alec Koster (11) during regular-season basketball action Feb. 12 at Cardinal Gym in Fairmont. Fairmont’s Levi Becker (left) and Mitch Pfingsten (3) patrol the lane as Redwood Valley’s RJ Juell (40) and Mitchell Fischer (22) look on. Fairmont and Redwood Valley tip off the Section 3AA championship game at 8 p.m. tonight at the R/A Facility on the Southwest Minnesota State University campus in Marshall. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
Both youthful head coaches - Fairmont's Jared Thompson and Redwood Valley's Markus Okeson - are averaging an incredible 20 victories per season during their third and fifth seasons, respectively. In fact, Okeson is aiming for the 100th victory of his esteemed coaching career tonight, while Thompson has his sights set on No. 60.
But the similarities do not stop there as both Thompson and Okeson reached the sectional finale by utilizing a starting lineup featuring three guards and two forwards, without the benefit of possessing a back-to-the-basket post player.
Both athletic offenses like to fill the fastbreak lanes, while both coaches pride themselves on their respective high-intensity man-to-man defenses.
"It will definitely be a different (defensive) approach than our two previous playoff games when our focus was on stopping the other teams' post players," Thompson said in reference to 6-foot-6 Worthington center Morgan Traylor and 6-5 Jackson County Central post player Jon Harmening. "Redwood (Valley) is quick and athletic, so we must contain their dribble penetration, contest their 3s and be solid in our closeouts."
Thompson and his sure-handed defenders' top priority will be stopping Redwood Valley leading scorer and senior guard Alec Koster, who cleared the 1,000-point career scoring plateau by pouring in a game-high 31 during a 68-59 regular-season loss to Fairmont on Feb. 12 in Fairmont.
"After playing them earlier this season, we're very familiar with one another," Thompson said. "Redwood (Valley) has a lot of ways to get him (Koster) open, and he can score inside and out.
"His teammates really do a nice job of creating opportunities for him and themselves off the dribble."
Thompson, however, possesses a 1,000-point career scorer to help offset the high-octane offensive prowess of Koster. Junior guard Mitch Pfingsten, who holds the No. 3 spot among Fairmont's all-time leading scorers with 1,363 points, netted 22 during his team's last matchup with Redwood Valley.
Despite being the target of opposing teams' specialized defenses, Pfingsten still managed to net 21 points in Fairmont's 64-57 victory over Worthington during Saturday night's South Sub-Section championship in Marshall. Pfingsten also tallied 15 points to top the Cardinals' 65-56 sub-section semifinal win over JCC last Thursday in Windom.
"Our lineups are fairly similar, but we have a slight size advantage on them and we'll need to capitalize on that when it's available," said Thompson.
Fairmont senior point guard Ryan Noll (6-0) and junior wing Jay Ruen (6-1) will likely match up against Redwood Valley junior point guard Mitchell Fischer (5-7) and junior guard Thane Widmer (5-7) in a battle of talented backcourts. Meanwhile, in the frontcourt, Fairmont senior forwards Bryce Holm (6-3) and Levi Becker (6-1) - along with junior reserve Josh Eversman (6-4) - will square off against Redwood Valley senior forwards RJ Juell (6-3) and Steven Runkel (5-11) - along with junior Taquez Perkins (5-9) and senior Jordan Ford (5-11).
"There's no doubt that both teams will be prepared for what's at stake (tonight)," said Thompson. "They've got some big-game experience after having reached the sectional final the past three years, but we've got a number of guys who have that same type of experience after having played in the state football championship game a year ago and the last couple of springs' state baseball tournament."
Redwood Valley earned the program's sixth state appearance in 2011, while Fairmont last reached the state basketball tournament in 1990 - the fourth in the program's history.
Fairmont's last appearance in a sectional hoops finale was 2008 - a 75-53 loss to Montevideo.