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Bulldogs make late season push

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  • Bennington seniors Mister Smith, Talan Pickering, and Eli Lawson lead the way for a Bulldog team on a mission to challenge for a state title. (Photo: Heather Kindall Photography)
    Bennington seniors Mister Smith, Talan Pickering, and Eli Lawson lead the way for a Bulldog team on a mission to challenge for a state title. (Photo: Heather Kindall Photography)

Bennington basketball has been through the ringer already this season, playing in the Heart of America league with five consistently ranked teams and a group of squads from top-to-bottom capable of beating anyone on any given night.

Sitting currently at 14-3 and ranked sixth in KBCA polls, the Bulldogs are coming off of back-to-back nail biters on Thursday and Friday of last week, followed by another ranked contest against Ell-Saline Tuesday night.

During that Thursday matchup, head coach Curtis Pickering and his squad took on defending 2A state champs and ranked league opponent Moundridge in what turned out to be an HOA classic.

Bennington’s Eli Lawson, one of the top players in 2A, and a Fort Hays basketball commit, completely dominated the game with 39 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks, helping the Bulldogs stay in the game on a night where shots weren’t falling for others.

With just over five seconds left Moundridge’s Bear Moddlemog hit a three-pointer to put the Wildcats up 60-59. During the sequence of the following inbound play, Lawson was knocked down in the backcourt before quickly getting back to his feet and making his way to the top of the Bulldogs key as the ball was pushed up court, where he then received a pass and hit a 23-foot game winning three-pointer with no time remaining, giving Bennington a huge win over one of the top teams in the state.

“Eli is an incredible player and could quite possibly carry a team for a full season, but our goal as a program is to not need that to happen,” Pickering said. “We have quite a few players that have put a lot of time on the court to prepare for this run. There’s no doubt in my mind that Eli will lead us to achieve our goals because he is a generational player for our program.”  

The following night, the Bulldogs took on a scrappy Remington team coached by former St. John and Wichita East coach Clint Kinnamon and staved off an upset, this time with a more traditionally distributed offensive workload.

The Bulldogs got another big night out of Lawson with 23 points, along with 11 from Mister Smith, eight from Kian Wilson, and six from Talan Pickering, giving themselves a 54-52 victory over the Broncos.

Tuesday's contest against fifth ranked Ell-Saline proved to be another example of Bennington's depth, with Lawson scoring a relatively low 11 points, Pickering added 16 points, along with eight from Smith. The Bulldogs managed a 48-41 win.

A major key for Bennington as they’ve navigated their gauntlet of a schedule has been the leadership from Lawson, Smith, and Pickering - seniors with loads of experience.

“Our seniors have been amazing through this tough year,” Pickering said. “The leadership they have shown speaks volumes to how our program will continue.”

Along with Lawson’s 19.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 2.5 blocks per game, Smith’s 11.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game, and Pickering’s 9.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.3 steals per game, the Bulldogs have plenty of other key contributors.

Sophomore Isaiah Garrett (7.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.5 spg), and juniors Kian Wilson (5.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.3 spg), Payge Rodenbeek (4.4 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.2 spg), and Brayden Palenske (2.1 ppg, 1.9 rpg) have provided essential minutes this season leaving the Bulldogs optimistic for years to come.

As the Bulldogs close out this season, they will need all the firepower they’ve got against ranked 3A opponent Ellsworth, and following games against Berean Academy and Inman, both prideful programs not to be overlooked.

Bennington appears on track to enter the Wabaunsee sub-state as the two-seed behind rival Sacred Heart. The Knights are currently 15-3 and ranked ninth by the KBCA.

Whether or not the Bulldogs eventually get a shot to return to the state tournament after winning sub-state a season ago, Pickering and his team aren’t worried about hypothetical games that are still a ways down the road.

“The keys to moving forward will be to control what we can control, do the little things, and stay within (ourselves),” said Pickering, who won his 200th victory as the Bulldog coach earlier this season. “We have a great group of guys that have been led by a great core of young men who have put their hearts into this game. No matter what the outcome is for this season, I have been blessed beyond what I can ever imagine with this group.”