Eli Sanders

West Nodaway sophomore Eli Sanders scores on a layup in the first half of the Rockets first-round win over East Atchison on Tuesday in the Fairfax Tournament.

FAIRFAX, Mo. — Some teams play above the rim, others excel below the rim, but when West Nodaway’s boys are playing their best, they are playing on the floorboards. 

“That is the first thing coach (Kolton Jones) preaches in practice every day,” West Nodaway junior Korbin Koch said. “Just hustle, hustle, hustle and be the first one to the ball. It worked and the entire team just listened to coach.”

The Rockets were playing without their only true post player in Tuesday’s first round of the Fairfax Tournament with junior Brody Beason missing the contest against East Atchison with illness. So to compensate for their lack of size, the Rockets turned up their defensive intensity — a trait that has been a staple of the program under its first-year  — to a whole new level. 

“That is fun,” Jones said of the way his team flew around. “That is what I want people to see us as. It gives me just a little bit of goosebumps once in a while when they play like that. I still kind of have the jitters right now.”

With juniors Parker Ogle and Koch playing the head of the press and junior Dylan Carden, senior David Hull and freshman Tyler Blay jumping passing lanes, the Wolves were completely frustrated by the Rockets.

After East Atchison jumped out to an 8-2 lead on a pair of threes by junior Gage McAdams, West Nodaway was able to chip away with defensive stops and hard drives to the rim and go on a 13-2 run with Koch scoring seven points in the spurt.

The Wolves were able to break the relentless pressure a late in the second quarter and they cut the lead to 21-19, but Blay ended the half with a buzzer-beater to push the lead to four points.

While the hustle and defense gave the Rockets their lead in the first half, their shooting was off. In the third quarter, the entire West Nodaway roster seemed to catch fire all at once. 

“We weren’t hitting early, but we were stopping them and playing good defensive while getting rebounds,” Jones said. “That aggression translated to the offensive side when we started cutting and passing to get easy layups. Then we started shooting in rhythm.”

West Nodaway opened the quarter with a 23-11 run as the lead expanded to 46-30. The Rockets hardly ever had an empty possession during the run as they crushed the Wolves on the offensive board even when they missed.

“I don’t care who you are and if you are the shortest or tallest guy, I want you finding a body and getting a rebound,” Jones said. “That is what helped up tonight.”

The rebounding was very impressive considering the Rockets only had one player over six-foot tall in uniform and the Wolves had the height advantage at nearly every position. 

A three by Koch followed by a break-away layup for Hull capped the run. 

East Atchison attempted to answer back and scored the final eight points of the third quarter to trim the lead eight. 

The Rockets were not backing down though and Ogle — not known as one of the Rockets top scorers — knocked down an open three early in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 53-40. 

The Wolves hung around ten points behind for most of the rest of the contest until McAdams hit a three with 1:20 left to get the score down to 61-56, but the Rocket defense tighten up again and held East Atchison scoreless the rest of the way.

Koch led the Rockets with 17 points, but the unsung heroes were sophomore Eli Sanders and freshman Grant Adkins with big minutes off the bench for a team that generally goes just six or seven deep.

“We saw great minutes out of those guys and I am very pleased,” Jones said.

The 63-56 victory sets up a game Wednesday with top-seeded St. Joseph Christian in a true ‘David and Goliath’ type game. The Lions will have the speed and size, but as East Atchison can attest, the Rockets aren’t to be trifled with. 

“We are all pumped about this,” Hull said. “It is awesome.”

For updates on the Rockets, check out maryvilledailyforum.com.

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