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Ninham develops Cass Lake-Bena into perennial state basketball power

Cass Lake-Bena head basketball coach Dan Ninham, back center, stands over a team video scouting session Tuesday afternoon inside the CL-B gym. The Panthers open play at the state tournament Thursday. Pioneer Photo/Pat Miller

A variety of factions within the greater Cass Lake-Bena community can claim at least partial credit for the success of the boys basketball team but the vast majority of the success can be traced to head coach Dan Ninham.

The Panthers will be making their fourth consecutive state tournament appearance 1 p.m. Thursday when they tangle with Minnesota Transitions at Williams Arena. The trip to the Twin Cities also is CL-B's fifth in the past six years.

"Dan is a Xs and Os type of guy who loves to diagram plays as the game is going on," said Cass Lake-Bena assistant coach Carl Jacobs. "I've never been around a coach who works harder off the court. Dan runs clinics, he attends clinics, he started a national network among coaches. He has developed a very strong program based on the 'Panther code of ethics'...pretty much three strikes and you are out. With Dan you always know where you stand."

During his 12 years behind the CL-B bench Ninham has posted a 254-85 record. His teams usually rank among the state leaders in defense, rebounding and points and his never-quit philosophy has helped good players become great players.

"Defensive intensity dictates offensive opportunity," Ninham said. "That philosophy is the umbrella that covers everything we do."

Including the workouts and practice sessions.

"Sixteen weeks ago we had players on our team who were not in shape. Now they are at the level where they can play in the state tournament," Ninham said.

"I'm very proud of our program," Jacobs, who has averaged 20 victories a season in his five years as junior varsity coach, said. "It's nice that wherever we go the opponent is gearing for us. If they can knock us off they consider it more than a victory. That's a compliment to our program."

The community and the school will send the Panthers off to state in grand fashion today when they host a pepfest at the high school (8:15 a.m.) and another following that at the elementary school.

"The kids and the players all look forward to the pep fests," said CL-B activities director Mike Hanson. "At the elementary school the kids make posters to greet the players and almost seem in awe of the team. And the players genuinely enjoy being with the elementary kids. After all, they all attended the elementary at one time."

Cass Lake-Bena will take a 26-4 record into Thursday's contest with the losses coming to Crosby-Ironton, Kittson County Central, Red Lake and Grand Rapids. Ninham has purposely upgraded his schedule in recent years and believes that a program will improve only by playing against the best.

"We want the big dogs on our schedule," the coach said. "We want to compete against the best because that is how you gain the experience needed to make it to state. We have played the best and we deserve to be at state.

"We're also looking forward to the challenge."

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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