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Always reloading, No. 1 Four Winds-Minnewaukan in the Top 10 poll for the 43rd time in a row

The Indians are 3-0 and the unanimous No. 1 team in the North Dakota Class B boys basketball poll.

Jayden.jpg
Jayden Yankton, Four Winds-Minnewaukan.

The Four Winds-Minnewaukan boys basketball team had literal big shoes to fill this year as 6-foot-10 center Bronson Walter, a North Dakota Class B all-state pick, graduated after averaging 14 points, 10 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game last year.

The Indians lost eight seniors and four starters.

But Four Winds-Minnewaukan doesn't seem to have rebuilding years.

The Indians are 3-0 and the unanimous No. 1 team in the state this winter. They have wins over strong Class B foes in Enderlin (No. 5 in last poll), Beulah (No. 7 in last poll) and Dickinson Trinity.

There has been 43 North Dakota Class B state Top 10 polls since the start of the 2018-19 season. Four Winds-Minnewaukan is the only team in all 43 polls.

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Enderlin has the second-longest streak in the Top 10 at 29 polls. During the Indians' 43-poll run, Rugby has appeared the second-most times with 33 appearances in the Top 10.

Four Winds-Minnewaukan is seemingly always at the top, too. Of the 43 polls, the Indians were ranked No. 1 on 23 occasions.

The Indians were ranked No. 8 in the first poll of the 2018-19 season. After that, FWM was never lower than fifth and not lower than third since the 2019-20 season.

The Indians played in the North Dakota Class B state championship four times from 2013 to 2017, winning it all in 2016. They made the state tournament in 2020 (called off due to coronavirus) and 2021.

For the extended success, FWM coach Rick Smith credits the veteran coaches at the youth level, as well as his assistants on the varsity staff, which includes former Devils Lake High School and UND men's basketball standout Travis Mertens.

Smith said his program also stresses the importance of role players.

"Like last year's team, we had two or three kids who could've been all-district players on other teams but they came off the bench for our team," Smith said. "I keep trying to tell them how important that is, not only for them but for our team to do something like that. That's not easy for young kids, but it's something they accept ... that team is very important for us. We try to instill that every single year. The outcome has been a lot of fun."

Senior guard Jayden Yankton is the lone returning starter from a year ago. A great building block, Yankton was an all-region pick last year after averaging 15.7 points per game.

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"It was a little pressure being the only starter coming back," Yankton said. "But, I thought we would be just fine. I think we're even better than we were last year. It all started in the offseason and going to team camps and getting that chemistry down. We knew what we had to do."

Through the first two games, Yankton was averaging 22.5 points per game. It was an adjustment period for Yankton, who grew up playing with the class one year older and now had to go at it without them.

"I couldn't be more proud of the leader he has become," Smith said.

A major development for the Indians, though, has been the emergence of sophomore Deng Deng, who played limited minutes early last year before showing major signs of promise late in the season.

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Through two games, Deng — a bouncy 6-foot-4 forward — is averaging 24.0 points per game.

"He was coming in last year and not afraid of the spotlight," Smith said. "He had a good district tournament and good regional tournament for not playing a lot. The state tournament he played extremely well. It just kind of took off from there. He had a great summer and was a gym rat. The thing he really worked on is adding muscle to his frame."

Deng is also chipping in 7.5 rebounds per game.

"I just try my best on the court," Deng said. "We have a good coaching staff and we work hard in practices to be the best we can. We travel a lot in the summer and do team camps. We lost a lot of seniors from last year and had to get more confidence working hard in the offseason."

Senior Jacolby Pearson and sophomore Dalen Leftbear have also scored in double digits early this season for the Indians.

"We have four guys who can flat-out score for us," Smith said. "It's really hard to key on one guy."

This year, the Indians have had to change the pace of the offense and defense, which played more in the halfcourt with the 6-10 Walter inside.

"Bronson was that last big gate for opposing teams to pass," Smith said. "He was an ultimate intimidator. On offense, he drew the double team. Sometimes triple.

"Now this year, we've been able to use our athleticism and length to puck up the tempo. Offensively, we don't have a true post but we have four guys who can attack the rim at any given time."

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Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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