All of the chatter surrounding Lakeland Union High School's boys' basketball team in the preseason was how injuries would affect its odds on the court.
On Tuesday night, we all got to find out as the Thunderbirds opened the 2017-2018 season with a non-conference game on the road at Ashland.
Lakeland jumped out to an early advantage and kept the Oredockers at bay throughout the game, leading by as much as 10 before pulling out a 62-57 win.
"We got a working lead somewhere in the first half - six or eight points - and it kind of stayed at that for most of the night," LUHS head coach Rich Fortier said. "I think we pushed it to 10 at one point, but it fluctuated from the five to eight-point range. At the end they made a little push and cut our eight-point lead to one with 45 seconds to go and we pushed it back to eight. They did what they had to do. They've got some pretty dead-eye shooters and the majority of our guys were tired at the end of the game. It came down to a battle against our legs."
All preseason long, Fortier has been touting the ability of senior transfer Santana Barnard and in his first game as a T-Bird, he didn't disappoint.
Barnard slashed his way through the Ashland defense for a game-high 24 points to help lead the team to victory.
"Santana did have a big game," Fortier said. "He left a lot on the table and he said it in the locker room. We were talking and he said, 'I could've had a lot more. But, who cares? We won.' He missed some easy looks for him, but I'm telling you what, that kid did a lot of heavy lifting. He had a lot of rebounds, he defended well - offensively, his game is not a stand-around game, it's a slash and slicing and dicing game. He really put a lot in there. He was in foul trouble in the first half, avoided that more so in the second half, but he plays hard. We were asking him to do a lot and 24 points is pretty good."
Much of the focus coming into the game was on how the young players would perform for Lakeland.
Sophomore Collin Quade stepped up off the bench to have a strong game, knocking down two 3-pointers and playing big minutes down the stretch after Gunnar Weitz fouled out.
"Collin was probably the guy who stood out the most in terms of the sophomores," Fortier said. "Cody (Wolfe) played well, I thought David (Wolfe) did well when he was in there - I thought all three sophomores did what they were supposed to do. In the end Gunnar fouled out and Collin played the last four or five minutes. There were some mistakes but from all of our players, not just the young guys. Plenty of mistakes to go around, but I thought our sophomores played well and Collin was a big part of why we were able to get that done with his shooting."
Weitz helped carry the load at times in the first half, finishing with 15 points for the game, while Ray Rentmeester pitched in 11.
Ashland connected on seven 3-pointers for the game, but Lakeland held standout Jordan Brennan to just five points after scoring 23 against the T-Birds in last year's season-opener.
Despite having a lot of new faces and two weeks from the first day of practice to prepare, Fortier was pleased with the performance his team put forth.
"Gunnar went for 15, Ray went for 11, Johnny (Jurries) went for six and we did all of that without Mason (Wolfe) scoring a hoop," Fortier said. "Mason had a pretty game besides that scoring stuff. We held their best player - who just torched us last year - to just five. We really were aware of him and our guys did a nice job ... I thought defensively we were good. Our zones were good, our (man-to-man) was good, we forced a lot of turnovers, unfortunately, we committed a lot of turnovers as well. If you force more than you have, you're going to be OK."
Kolin Clarembeaux paced Ashland with a team-high 19 points in defeat, while Zach Coffland had 14.
Lakeland (1-0) returns to the court for its home opener tonight, following the girls' varsity team in a doubleheader against Wausau West. The girls' game tips off at 6 p.m. and the boys' follows directly afterwards.
Nick Sabato may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @SabatoNick.