ERIE — Through hell and high water, the Erie Red Devils basketball programs’ records remain unblemished through five games on both the boys’ and girls’ sides.
Erie’s boys and girls are both ranked in the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association Class 2A rankings — the boys fifth, the girls 10th. Erie is one of 16 schools in the state with the distinction of having both boys and girls teams ranked.
“There’s no question that there’s no bigger fan of the girls’ program than us,” Red Devils boys head coach Nick Pfeifer said. “We want everybody to be successful. We hope we keep rolling.”
The spotlight on Erie has grown brighter through the hot start, but the pressure to keep up momentum comes both externally and internally.
“The boys give our girls a hard time and they’re competing against each other,” Erie girls coach Sindy Daniels said. “Being undefeated is a great feeling, but it comes with pressure.”
A year ago, Erie’s girls were 3-5 through eight games before winning 12 of their next 14 outings en route to the sub-state championship. The Red Devils fell to St. Mary’s Colgan in the sub-state finals, but a final record of 15-8 gave Erie momentum that has carried over to this season.
“It seems like we started clicking together,” Daniels said. “We’re starting to finish close games more this year. We know where everybody is at and we’re playing together.”
The Red Devils’ boys finished 19-5 a year ago with their final loss coming to Sterling in the first round of the KSHSAA 2A State Tournament. That loss came on what was the final day of sports for the school year as KSHSAA suspended all activities, eventually for the rest of the year, as the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset came.
Entering the 2020-21 campaign, the Erie boys and girls faced a similar challenge in replacing a starting point guard.
Matthew Vail helmed the Red Devils’ boys offense a year ago, averaging a team-high 14.2 points and 3.6 assists per game.
Tyler Duling, Vail’s primary replacement for Erie, has proven to be a more effective distributor. Duling, a senior, averages 5.2 assists. Mark Bogner has taken over scoring duties with 17.4 points per game, while Dawson Lehman has chipped in 12 points a night.
“The answer is that Tyler Duling has been a really good player,” Pfeifer said. “It hasn’t been a huge transition. Matt Vail was a tremendous playe, but Tyler has stepped in just like we thought he would. I’ve been so pleased with him.”
Erie’s girls also had to replace a point guard in Molly LaForge, who averaged 9.7 points a year ago. Skylar Clevenger, who platooned with LaForge in the backcourt last year, has taken the reins in averaging 9.6 points and 4.2 assists.
“Clevenger has really stepped up into that role and all our seniors are leaders,” Daniels said. “If it wasn’t for them, the younger kids wouldn’t step up to the challenges like they have.”
Both Erie teams are also bolstered by a strong paint presence.
For the girls, Maddie Kramer nearly averages a double-double with 10.2 points and eight rebounds to go along with 3.4 blocks per game. On the boys’ roster, Lehman averages 6.4 rebounds to go along with his dozen points. He’s complemented by Eric Dillinger, who posts 10.4 points and 4.8 rebounds an outing.
While Erie is rolling, questions remain and a stronger schedule awaits.
“We’ve only played five games and I just feel like I don’t know enough about this team,” Pfeifer said. “I feel like we’re talented and they’re fun to coach. But what we will be at the end of the year, I still don’t know at this point.”
The omnipresent COVID-19 pandemic has also so far stayed away from Erie through the season as both programs got through their entire pre-winter break schedule without any disruptions.
“We’re very fortunate and everybody knows you can do everything right and still be out,” Pfeifer said. “We’re aware of that. But we also do everything we can in order to minimize those risks. I think it’s important. You stay hopeful but we know things can change.”
Some of that fortune is by design, the rest is likely luck.
“I really stressed separating in the classroom to distance themselves,” Daniels said. “We start practice with our masks on. It’s a luck of the draw a little bit, though. I’m sure we’ll see some after effects of Christmas.”
The fear of the virus clouds any expectations Erie has for post-winter break.
“I don’t know if we can brace for anything with COVID going on,” Daniels said. “We’ll take it day-by-day and go with who we have.”
Pfeifer highlighted that it’s likely Erie will suffer a defeat en route to the postseason, but that one loss should’t derail the team.
“It’s extremely rare for somebody to go undefeated,” Pfeifer said. “I hope we win every game, but we might go through a stretch where we lose a couple in a row. That doesn’t mean we’re not a good game. So we’ll keep trying to win every practice and go from there.”
Basketball nights are proving to be as fun as they’ve been in years for Erie. It’s not difficult to envision both teams getting a crack at the state tournament.
“It’s easy to look at the 5-0 and state ranking,” Pfeifer said. “But it’s about competing every night and still learning where we’re at.”