By Tom Larson
New London and Spicer are small Minnesota communities with a combined population of about 2,400.
But New London will appear to be quite a bit larger come Monday night, as people stream into town to catch one of the bigger boys basketball games in the area this season.
New London-Spicer, Minnesota's No. 1 team in Class AA, will play host to the Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta Tigers at 7:30 p.m.
The Tigers, following Saturday's 89-52 win in Benson Saturday night, enter the game undefeated and ranked No. 2 in Class AA.
Varsity game time is 7:30 p.m., although a significant snowstorm that is expected to hit the area Sunday and Monday could force another postponement. The teams initially were scheduled to play late last month before poor weather necessitated rescheduling.
Tigers coach Mark Torgerson and Wildcats coach Matt Cordes both said the communities are excited about the showdown between the long-time West Central Conference rivals.
"A lot of people have been asking me, 'What time should we be there? Will we get it?'" Torgerson said. "I don't know, but I think the interest level is high."
Fans from both school districts have been anticipating the game since last spring.
The Tigers and Wildcats split two regular-season games -- the Wildcats won a matchup of West Central South and North champions -- and New London-Spicer advanced to the Minnesota State Tournament with an Section 6AA championship game victory over the Tigers.
Both teams returned this season with a strong core of players from teams that finished with 20-plus win seasons in 2008-2009.
The Tigers on Thursday dispatched West Central South rival Montevideo 68-40, and the victory over Benson improved their record to 16-0 overall and 11-0 in the conference.
Morris Area/C-A's Lincoln Arnold netted 19 points and Cory Hennen scored 16. Jackson Henrich sparked the defense with seven rebounds and five blocks.
New London-Spicer improved to 17-1 with a 72-43 win over Milaca on Thursday. The Wildcats have been to three of the last four state tournaments, and they won a state championship in 2008.
Against Milaca, the Wildcats' Aaron Johnson pulled down 20 of the Wildcats' 57 rebounds to lead the team. He also had 10 points. Aaron Jenny scored 19 points and grabbed 12 boards, Justin Zylstra had 16 points and Erik Tengwall contributed 12 points, eight assists and five steals.
Those New London-Spicer names are familiar to Tigers fans who recall the Wildcats holding off a late-game surge to win the section title last spring.
Likewise, the Wildcats are fully aware of the problems posed by the returning Tigers.
"I think there are a lot of similarities," Cordes said. "Both teams are very athletic, and length-wise, they're similar. And both teams have an extra gear in their abilities to work harder."
It's not the first time MA/CA has played big games against the Wildcats with equally competitive teams, Torgerson said.
In the mid-1990s, fan interest in a Tigers-Wildcats game ran so high that it was moved to the University of Minnesota, Morris PE Center. The large gym was packed and fans who couldn't get a seat watched the game on a closed-circuit TV feed, Torgerson said.
The Tigers had to do the same thing in a game against Minnewaska Area during those years, he said.
"It was unbelievable the talent that was in the area," Torgerson said.
In 1994, when the teams played in different regions, both earned trips to the state tournament. In 2006, a year in which the Wildcats were in the state tournament again, Morris Area defeated them on their home floor.
"Our rivalry with New London-Spicer is intense. There have been a lot of close games, a lot of well-played games. Now, we're in the same section again."
The Tigers and Wildcats have kept that rivalry going even after the schools were split into different divisions of the West Central Conference, meaning they typically play only once a year instead of twice, Torgerson said.
The fact that both schools have been involved in high-stakes games lends to the level of play and the rivalry, Cordes said.
"No doubt, there's always an advantage when you've played in the big games, and you have the ability to play well in the big game -- play on the big stage.
Both teams have shown a knack for taking care of business this season.
The Wildcats' lone loss came by two points in late December against Willmar, a Class AAA school. They have won by an average margin of 21 points per game.
The Tigers have won their games by an average margin of about 27 points.
The matchup Monday also could serve to steel the teams for the postseason.
Before Staples-Motley fell out of the rankings last week, four Section 6 schools were among the Class AA top 10. For all its winning ways, the Tigers are just a game ahead of Minnewaska Area, which is 9-1 in the West Central South and 11-3 overall.
Other Section 6 teams are playing solid ball, as well: as of Friday, Breckenridge was 14-3, Staples-Motley was 12-3, and West Central Area was 10-6. In the other half of the section, with the Wildcats, sits Albany at 13-1 and ranked No. 7 in Class AA.
"There are a lot of good teams that aren't going to make it through," Torgerson said. "It's too bad all of them are in there (Section 6), but that's the way it goes."
Monday's game doesn't mean much beyond the state rankings and the psyches of the teams and the emotions of fans. But no one's thinking about that.
It's No. 1 vs. No. 2, both of whom have seen a lot of each other over the years.
"In reality, there's not much in terms of conference implications," Cordes said. "But for both communities and both teams, this is a big game."