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Chris Murphy, Published March 19 2013

Battle Lake boys basketball team excited for return to state

Fargo - After going 25-3 in 2005 with the program’s first state tournament berth, Battle Lake’s boys basketball team went 55-66 with three playoff wins in the next five seasons.

After 22-5 and 25-2 seasons – both ending in the section semifinals – the 22-5 Battlers are headed to the Minnesota Class 1A state tournament for the first time since 2005. There’s one big difference that should remind the top teams in Class 1A to get comfortable with the Battlers.

“That 2005 team was all seniors, and it was our last chance,” said Battle Lake coach Dan Peterka, who has coached the Battlers for 13 years. “It was a little unexpected this season, since we are so young. We’re going to play to win, but we’re going to enjoy the experience. We’ve developed some very good kids, who get in the gym in the offseason. All that work has paid off.”

With the starting five made up of two sophomores, two juniors and a freshman – with four of them averaging double digits in points – there’s no reason to believe Battle Lake’s success is going away anytime soon.

“We’re all really excited, knowing how young our team is,” said Tyler Ukkelberg, who averages 14 points and is the fourth best rebounder headed to the tournament in Class 1A with 9.3 a game. “We’re all family.”

Ukkelberg wasn’t kidding. His brother is a freshman on the Battlers and averages 10 points a game, and there are three VanErps on the team. Sophomore Petric VanErp averages 13 points a game and is the cousin of freshman brothers Andrew and senior Evan VanErp. It’s a family tree that is just starting to grow.

“It’s a good feeling to come out and get it done this year,” Tyler Ukkelberg said. “We got a bunch of young guys coming, so we should be even better in the future.”

Dan Marso – Battle Lakes’ leading scorer at 15 points per game – remembers when the tree was just getting planted. He was an eighth-grader on the 2008-09 team that went 13-12 before the Battlers rattled off a record of 69-12 in the past three seasons.

“We had a lot of young kids coming up,” Marso said of the 13-12 season. “Some of the kids in my grade and a grade younger improved a lot, and they started working hard and it made a big difference. It feels great knowing that we put so much work into everything and turned the team around.”

The future may be bright for Battle Lake, but the Battlers aren’t ready for next season yet. They are ready for No. 2-seeded Upsala, one of only two undefeated teams in the state.

“We have to focus on this year first,” Marso said. “We know they are a really good team and they haven’t lost. We are looking to go down there and change that.”

The Battlers will have their hands full with Upsala’s Christian Pekarek. Pekarek, who is the third-best scorer in the Class 1A tournament at 23.6 points per game, is the leader for a Cardinals team making their second trip to state.

“We have nothing to lose,” Peterka said. “Hopefully the pressure is on them. We have good balance with our offense, we work pretty hard defensively, and we just put it together. We are on a run at the right time after some early to midseason roadblocks.”

Battle Lake hopes this is the start of something special.

“Even after I graduate, there’s going to be a lot of good players coming,” Marso said. “Hopefully this shows all those young kids looking up that a team like Battle Lake can do this. They can make it to state and compete. It’s not out of the question to do what we’re doing right now.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548