ASHTON – It may be hard to remember, but there was a time when the North Fremont boys basketball team was considered an underdog.
The Huskies’ postseason success was historically meager, and while the Nuclear Conference has traditionally been competitive, North Fremont never found itself celebrating at the end of a district tournament.
Things have certainly changed at the small school in Ashton.
“It’s been a big transition for us to go from kind of a sleeper team in the Nuclear Conference and the state to now you’re the No. 1 team and everybody’s gunning for you,” coach Shannon Hill said during a recent practice.
Over the past three years the Huskies have risen from sleeper to defending 2A state champion. Make that two-time defending state champion. They also added a coveted district tournament championship to their resume last year.
This season, North Fremont has been ranked No. 1 in the state media poll and has jumped out to a 13-0 start. With three returning starters in Jordan Lenz, Luke Hill and Max Palmer, expectations were indeed high, but so was the reality. North Fremont had the talent and experience to challenge for a 3-peat. It just have to prove it on the court.
Luke Hill noted this season has been similar to last year when every opponent had the Huskies in their sights for an upset.
“We expect to get a team’s best,” he said, noting a key advantage to battling every night is experience.
The underdog or sleeper tag no longer applies.
“We’re just used to being in tight situations,” he said. “We’ve done it so often nobody panics. We’re calm under pressure.”
Shannon Hill said one constant over the three-year span has been defense. The Huskies hold opponents to 39.5 points a game, good enough for second in the state in 2A behind St. Maries at 39.2 points. Probably not coincidentally, North Fremont and St. Maries (11-0) are the only remaining unbeaten teams in the state in 2A.
“Especially in this day and age in basketball, I feel defense has been a forgotten art and that’s what we’re all about,” Shannon Hill said. “Defense and team basketball.”
“Our defense is a huge part of this,” Lenz added. “Our defense will lead to our offense.”
Shannon Hill points to the district tournament as the true measure of how good the team is and can be as it pursues another state title. The unbeaten record, which includes two tight wins over defending 3A state champion Sugar-Salem, is impressive but not the ultimate goal.
“We know that no matter what happens in the regular season it’s about tournament basketball,” he said. “Whether it’s districts or state … It’s about getting better and focusing on tournament play.”
Experience should be enough to help tamp down any perceived pressure at chasing another title.
But experience cuts two ways. Most of the Huskies players also play on the football team, which has also been a 2A power over the past few years and ranked No. 1 in state polls. The difference is that the football team couldn’t get over the hump and ended its season in the state playoffs.
Most of the North Fremont players know the crushing feeling of losing in the playoffs. They also know the elation of celebrating and hoisting a trophy at the Idaho Center in March.
“We try to play every game like it’s our last,” Luke Hill said. “We expect a high standard for ourselves.”
The Huskies’ next test comes on Tuesday when they travel to Firth. North Fremont handed the Cougars their only Nuclear Conference loss two weeks ago, but a win by Firth would shake up the top of the standings and possible district tournament seeding, along with ending a run at an undefeated season by the Huskies.
“Each team comes and gives us their best shot,” Lenz said. “But every game we have to stay humble and hungry.”
So far, the Huskies have been up to the challenge.