Hail Varsity headed to downtown Omaha on Friday night to take in a showdown between traditional powers in Class A (Omaha Central) and Class B (Omaha Skutt), and the visiting SkyHawks came out on top 71-51.
Central jumped out to a an 18-12 lead after one, Skutt tied it up at 27-all then junior guard Max Polk scored five straight to give the Eagles a 32-27 lead at halftime. The SkyHawks took control in the third quarter, holding the Eagles to seven total points in the period and ripping off a 16-0 run spanning the third and fourth quarters to turn a one-point game into a blowout.
Here are five thoughts on how it went down.
John Tonje is a Division I Talent
Standing nearly 6-foot-5 with a 210-pound frame and a 6-foot-6 wingspan, Omaha Central senior John Tonje looks every bit the part of a Division I basketball player. He backs that up when the ball starts bouncing as well.
Tonje is a good athlete capable of finishing both above and around the rim in impressive fashion as well as a knock-down 3-point shooter off the catch. But it was his ball-handling the impressed me the most on Friday night. He’s taken massive strides in that area even since the end of the summer.
Tonje finished with 26 points on the night with the majority of them coming via the foul line. Tonje pulled off numerous next-level ball-handling sequences to get to the rim and create contact, and he ended up 16-of-18 from the charity stripe. Tonje scored 13 straight Central points in the first quarter with a pair of 3s, a pair of trips to the foul line after drawing contact on drives and another trip to the line after a foul on a 3-pointer.
Tonje is averaging right around 26 points for the season after Thursday night, and he looks to be the odds on favorite to lead Class A in scoring. He doesn’t currently hold any scholarship offers, but that needs to change. Tonje is a Division I player.
Andrew Merfeld: Glue Guy
Skutt brought a lot back from last year’s state runner-up, but one of the players they lost was Jackson Gordon, a good athlete who did a lot of the little things (crashed the glass, moved the ball, took on tough defensive assignments). With Gordon off to UNO to play baseball, the SkyHawks needed somebody to fill those shoes.
That appears to be junior guard Andrew Merfeld, the son of Creighton’s assistant to the head coach Steve Merfeld. The younger Merfeld was a nice spark off the bench for Skutt last season and has slid seamlessly into the starting lineup this year.
Merfeld’s stat line on Friday doesn’t jump off the page — eight points on 3-of-4 shooting, three assists, a rebound, a steal and a turnover — but he played his role very well and made a significant impact.
Despite being just 5-foot-11, Merfeld was the one tasked with defending Tonje for most of the night. While Central’s star did finish with 26 points, he only shot 4-of-12 from the field and turned the ball over four times. Tonje had to earn everything he got. Merfeld is physical, smart and he works hard.
Tyson Gordon Makes Skutt Go
At just under 6-foot-3, Tyson Gordon (the younger brother of the Jackson Gordon mentioned above) stands out no matter what sport he’s playing. The junior is a terrific baseball player and was a dynamic utility player for Skutt’s title-winning football team, but basketball is his favorite sport and he’s the team’s bast player on the court as well.
Gordon finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists on Friday night. The majority of his points came at the free-throw line — an area in which he has struggled at times in the past — as he was 14-of-17 on the night including 8-of-10 in the fourth quarter to prevent any kind of comeback from Central.
Gordon got off to a slow start, and the SkyHawks found themselves down six after the first quarter. However, he got going and some timely buckets powered the runs Skutt made to draw even and then pull ahead.
Gordon’s burst makes him so tough to defend; if he gets a step on you he’s finishing at the rim in the blink of an eye. He has good vision as a distributor and is a versatile defender as well. Heck, he threw down a dunk in eighth grade against a team I was helping to coach, so I’ve known what kind of athlete he is for some time now. He started as a freshman, and now as a junior, this is his team.
Skutt will go as far as Gordon takes them.
Skutt is Stocked for a State Title Run
The SkyHawks probably should have taken state last season as they had a lead in the fourth quarter before letting it slip away through a series of turnovers and missed free throws. Instead, York took home the hardware.
However, despite losing two starters, Skutt looks capable of getting right back to where it was last year — the Class B championship game. Friday’s win was impressive; it was the first loss of the season for the Eagles, a team stocked with length and athleticism. Central’s pressure gave Skutt some issues early on, but the SkyHawks settled down and took control.
Skutt has the size to match up with anyone with 6-foot-6 senior TJ Skradski in the middle (15 points and nine rebounds, 6-of-6 from the field on Friday). It has shooting with senior sniper Jake Kudron. Sophomore Charlie Fletcher showed some things as a spark off the bench against the Eagles, finishing with eight points. Add Gordon and Merfeld to that group and you’ve got a team that can go all the way in Class B.
Far From Finished Products
Skate and Central are both good now, but both teams should look very different come February and March as well as they each were short-handed on Friday.
Central lost a key piece in its season-opening win over a god Omaha Bryan team. Junior guard Latrell Wrightsell Jr. broke a finger on his left hand during that game before finishing with 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting (5-of-7 from 3). He had surgery on his hand and will be out for a month or two.
That was a crushing blow to the Eagles who only brought back four players with varsity experience. Take Wrightsell out of the equation and that number is down to three, which puts a heavy offensive burden on Tonje and Polk. Wrightsell is capable of going off for 20 or 30 in any given game and is a knockdown 3-point shooter, something the Eagles sorely lacked on Friday as Tonje had to create most of his looks off the dribble and the team shot 5-of-23 from deep overall.
Central will look a lot different with Wrightsell back in the lineup and as all of the new guys continue to gain experience at the varsity level.
As for the SkyHawks, they were a little shallow in the front court as a air of 6-foot-4 seniors were both in street clothes. Ryan McCormick has the ability to step out on the perimeter and stretch the floor as well as score inside, while Grant Healy is a strong rebounder on both ends of the floor. Add those two back to the lineup and the SkyHawks will be tough to handle.
I’m looking forward to seeing what these teams look like at full strength.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.