Patterson: T-birds look built for a big ride

Millard West’s Madi Severson and Bellevue West’s Madi Braun fight for a loose ball.


There were those — myself included — who thought Bellevue West’s unbeaten streak might come to an end Saturday night at Omaha Central.

Coach Marc Kruger’s team proved us wrong.

The top-ranked Thunderbirds moved to 16-0 with an 11-point win against the defending Class A champion. But it was the way Bellevue West won that now has me believing this team could go on to accomplish something special this season.

Start with the balanced scoring the Thunderbirds used to put away the Eagles. Four players — Annie Szczepaniak, Kate Liveringhouse, Madi Braun and Chloe Akin-Otiko — were in double figures.

Add the experienced play of senior guard Taylor Ditoro, who usually is assigned the opposing team’s top scoring guard. Her contribution sometimes gets overlooked, but it shouldn’t.

Mix in important role players such as Elisha Cobbs, Julie Targy, Haelee Kowalski and Katie Imig. They give the team depth, and that’s key as the season progresses.

Top it off with a strong group of assistants, including longtime Omaha Benson boys coach Terry Shelsta and former Thunderbirds standout Kelsey Woodard.

Put it all together and it’s no wonder why Bellevue West is one of three undefeated teams left in the state, along with Class C-1 Pierce and C-2 Crofton.

“Every day is a new challenge for us,” Kruger said. “At this point, we know that everybody has us circled on their schedules. But I think we look forward to that.”

Perhaps most impressive about the Thunderbirds’ win is the fact they easily could have played better. They turned the ball over 23 times and were 3 of 13 from 3-point range, yet still handed the defending champs a 62-51 loss.

But can Bellevue West become the first Class A team since Lincoln Northeast in 2005 to finish the season undefeated? Kruger said that’s not even something he’s concerned about.

“Of course we’re aware that we haven’t lost yet,” he said. “But to finish undefeated isn’t our goal. We just want to pass the test each night, and if we lose it’s not going to change anything.”

Kruger, in his first season as coach, took over when Matt Fritsche left to become the head coach at Midland University. Kruger was an assistant for the Thunderbirds when they captured state titles in 2007, 2009 and 2010.

He also was there when Bellevue West lost to crosstown rival Bellevue East in the 2011 Class A final. And in 2012, when the Thunderbirds missed the state tournament after losing to Fremont in the district final.

Kruger said that season-ending setback last season hasn’t played a role in the Thunderbirds’ impressive performance this season.

“We don’t really talk about that,” he said. “This is a totally different team, so we’d rather just look at what’s ahead.”

What’s ahead in the next two weeks is four more road games, including a big one Saturday night at third-ranked Millard West. The Wildcats already have defeated four ranked teams and would undoubtedly love to avenge their 14-point loss to the Thunderbirds in the Metro holiday tournament final.

Also still remaining on the Bellevue West schedule are games against ranked foes Norfolk, Millard North and Bellevue East. That always-emotional game against the rival Chieftains, postponed from December because of snow, will be Feb. 12.

Kruger said that even if his team doesn’t go undefeated, it already has shown him something this season.

“They’ve worked hard, and it’s nice to see them getting rewarded for it,” he said. “But we’ve got a long way to go, and I know that we all understand that.”

Ratings update: Little change here as Bellevue West remains No. 1 in Class A and Beatrice stays No. 1 atop Class B.

The Thunderbirds posted wins last week against Omaha Marian, Papillion-La Vista and Central while the Lady Orange moved to 12-1 by capturing the River Cities Conference tournament.

Millard North makes the biggest move in the Top 10, advancing from No. 8 to No. 4. The Mustangs netted home wins over ranked Lincoln foes Southwest and Southeast.

Statistics needed: Coaches of teams in Class A, Class B and the Omaha area are reminded to submit updated statistics by Tuesday. They may be faxed (402-444-1238) or emailed to mike.patterson@owh.com.

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