A slow start to the season didn’t keep the NorthWood Panthers from winning a Class 3A high school boys basketball sectional championship. The same thing can be said of the Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger Saints.

The Panthers lost six of their first 10 games and were 6-11 heading into the final three contests of the regular season. NorthWood won those last three contests and extended its winning streak to six games by defeating West Noble 58-45 last Saturday to win the program’s fourth sectional championship.

“We made a point of staying focused on the sectional during the season,” 6-4 NorthWood sophomore Zach Zurcher said. “Winning sectional was a team goal from the beginning of practice.”

“We beat two teams in the sectional that we had lost to during the regular season,” 6-4 sophomore teammate Jonathan Wilkinson said. “That has helped our confidence. We are a pretty confident team heading into regional.”

The Saints opened the season by losing seven of their first eight games only to turn things around by topping Fort Wayne Concordia 46-40 in the championship of the Garrett sectional. Concordia was a 64-62 winner over Dwenger in the regular season.

Dwenger enters the regional with a five-game winning streak.

When NorthWood (12-11) and Bishop Dwenger (9-11) square off Saturday at 10 a.m. in the opener of the 3A regional at Blackford High School (located in Hartford City, north of Muncie on Ind. 3 in Blackford County) it will be the first time the two schools have ever clashed on the basketball court.

The second semifinal matches the No. 2 ranked Muncie Central Bearcats (19-3) and the No. 4 Norwell Knights around 12:30 p.m. The winners return for the championship at 8 p.m. and a berth in the northern semistate on Saturday, March 17 at either Lafayette Jefferson or Huntington North.

“Dwenger is a very skilled team that shoots the ball extremely well from the perimeter,” NorthWood coach Aaron Wolfe said. “Dwenger is not as big as Concordia would have been, but the Saints make up for that with some pretty formidable skills.

“I hate to put labels on teams, but Dwenger reminds me of Goshen in the fact they have skilled players that are capable of doing multiple things.”

The Panthers posted a 2-5 record this season in the always tough NLC.

“Our conference schedule is a great help to us once we get into the tournament,” Wolfe said. “We are playing bigger schools and we are facing a wide variety in styles of play. That kind of experience is priceless once we get into the postseason.

NorthWood’s other sectional championships were in 1995 at Goshen, 2001 3A at NorthWood and 2007 3A at NorthWood. The program’s lone regional title was in 2007, also at NorthWood.

Besides this season Dwenger has won sectional titles in 1988, 1989, 1994, 1996, 1997 and 2010. The Saints have captured regional titles in 1988, 1994 and 1996.

Matt Kostoff is the coach of the Saints and he has a 168-114 record in this his 13th season as the school.

Leading players for the Saints are 6-3 senior Isaac Berg, 6-2 senior Brett Lochbiler, 6-0 senior Michael Kindler, 6-0 senior Michael Sordelet, 6-4 junior Logan Wiening and 6-0 sophomore Michael Flacable.

Lochbiler tossed in 14 points to lead the Saints in their sectional championship win.

“Dwenger posses a problem in guarding their shooters on the perimeter and staying in front of the players that like to drive to the basket,” Wolfe said.

“They also do a nice job of changing defenses. It’s going to be important for us to recognize the defense the Saints are in. Our team has been growing in the area of recognizing defenses all season.”

One of the keys to recognizing those multiple defenses will be the play of 5-10 senior point guard Derek Yoder. In NorthWood’s three sectional contests, Yoder dished out seven assists in a 40-35 win over Tippecanoe Valley, six in a 51-41 win over Lakeland and nine in the finale against West Noble all while not turning the ball over once.

“It’s going to be important for us to take care of the ball and make every possession count,” Wolfe said. “Yoder has the ability to run our offense and see that players get quality shots. Those are going to be important factors in our success on Saturday.”

Yoder leads the team with 98 assists, followed by Miller and Wilkinson both 37 and Zurcher 34.

“Miller and Wilkinson have become very reliable passers,” Wolfe said.

Wilkinson has scored 260 points (11.3 ppg) to lead the Panthers, followed by Zurcher 234 (10.6), 6-1 freshman Braxton Miller 208 (9.0) and 6-2 senior Jakyah Qaiyim 297 (12.2).

NorthWood is shooting 45.5 percent (427-of-938) on all field goals, including 31.7 (92-of-290) from 3-point range. Top shooters are 6-2 senior Jakyah Qaiyim 56.7 (85-of-150), 6-4 sophomore Zach Zurcher 50.0 (102-of-204) and 6-4 sophomore Jonathan Wilkinson 44.2 (88-of-199).

Leaders from beyond the arc are 6-2 junior Tommy Klem 45.5 (10-of-22), 6-1 freshman Braxton Miller 33.1 (39-of-118), Wilkinson 30.9 (25-of-81) and Yoder 27.3 (9-of-33).

As a team NorthWood is hitting 64.6 percent from the free-throw line. Wilkinson is at 80.8 (59-of-73), Klem 80.0 (20-of-25) and Yoder 63.5 (33-of-52).

Zurcher leads the team with 144 rebounds, followed by Qaiyim 105, Wilkinson 85 and Klem 57. Yoder has 45 steals, Qaiyim 29, Wilkinson 22 and Miller 19.

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