Not every Lutheran middle school basketball team can say it capped off its season with a Lutheran National Tournament berth.

St. Peter’s Lutheran can claim it for both its boys and girls eighth-grade basketball teams after the two squads qualified for the national tournament that starts Thursday at Valparaiso University. The tournament will run through Sunday.

The Lutheran Nationals features 32 boys and 32 girls teams, with every team having to apply for a bid each year. Teams that make it into the championship game of their respective state tournaments are guaranteed a bid. Usually, teams that place third also are invited, and Indiana has been able to advance its fourth-place teams on many occasions.

The St. Peter’s boys team earned its bid after placing second in the state tournament, while the girls team got in on a fourth-place finish.

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The boys team lost to St. Paul out of Fort Wayne in the championship game, but managed to beat its rival Immanuel Lutheran from Seymour in the semifinal round.

The Lions lost to Immanuel a week earlier in the Lutheran Invitational championship game, but redeemed themselves in the fifth matchup of the season between the two schools.

“We played probably our second-best defensive game all year and were able to hold their leading scorer (Mitchell Hackman) to eight points,” St. Peter’s boys coach Mark Christopher said. “We told the team after Christmas break that defense was going to determine how far we get.”

Hackman scored at least 15 points in the previous four games, but Will Riecker did a solid job of containing him in the semifinal. His top-notch defense helped name him to the state All-Tournament team, along with JT Kuhlman. Christopher labeled Kuhlman the most consistent player for the Lions this season.

“It’s awesome to be able to be on that All-Tournament team,” Kuhlman said. “I also thought it was cool watching the older team get it and all that (in previous years).”

St. Peter’s is an undersized team outside of 6-foot-1 Noah Abfall, but Christopher said the Lions still manage to do a good job rebounding. It also helped that Abfall played what Christopher said were his three best games of the season to close the state tournament. They are going to need the same type of performance out of him in at Valparaiso.

Girls coach Rick Patberg also will be hoping for duplicate performances out of his two state All-Tournament team honorees Kaitlyn Carothers and Lucy Norman. Patberg said Carothers’ 16- and 17-point performances carried the Lions in the first two games, while Norman did a solid job handling the ball and shot well from 3-point range in the final two games.

The St. Peter’s girls won their first two games, but ran into last year’s national tournament champions in St. John Sauers in the semifinal game. The Lions were trailing by one point and had three shot attempts in the last 15 seconds for a chance to win, but they couldn’t convert and fell two points short.

St. Peter’s fell to Lutheran Central in the third-place game, but Patberg still likes the team’s chances at Valparaiso after the showing they had against the national defending champs. There isn’t much seeding that goes on in the tournament, so both teams are hoping for favorable draws. Playing an Indiana style of basketball also benefits them at the national level, Patberg said.

“Indiana basketball is slightly different than any other state,” Patberg said. “We come out and play a little more aggressive than many other states. Hopefully that turns into some success there.”

The boys team also is confident that it can go far in the bracket if it gets some good matchups. The Lions will be looking to rely on their speed against bigger opponents. The bigger court could work in their favor and create more space for the team to work with.

“We can get a lot of fast-break points,” Kuhlman said. “A lot of kids on our team can shoot. Having a big floor spreads it our more and causes us to drive and kick it to them.”

Headed to Nationals

Team: St. Peter’s Lutheran eighth-grade boys

Record: 24-7

Head coach: Mark Christopher

State place: Second

All-Tournament honors: JT Kuhlman, Will Riecker

Up next: Lutheran National Tournament, March 22-25 at Valparaiso University


Team: St. Peter’s Lutheran eighth-grade girls

Record: 20-12

Head coach: Rick Patberg

State place: Fourth

All-Tournament honors: Kaitlyn Carothers, Lucy Norman

Up next: Lutheran National Tournament, March 22-25 at Valparaiso University

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Frank Bonner is a sports writer for The Republic. He can be reached at fbonner@therepublic.com or 812-379-5632.