The I-90 rivalry is alive and well for a section title

Published 8:16 pm Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The I-90 rivalry between Austin and Albert Lea is about to take on a much bigger meaning. The top-seeded Packers will take on the No. 2 seeded Tigers with a trip to state on the line in the Section 1AAA championship at 8 p.m. in Mayo Civic Center Friday.

While Albert Lea and Austin always want to beat each other, the last meeting between the teams, which Austin won 41-40 in AL on Feb. 28, ended with Austin senior Agwa Nywesh comforting a fallen JJ Mucha Owens, an AL senior, after the game had finished.

“I saw him laying there and I know how that feels. I just had to comfort him,” Nywesh said. “ We’ve always battled throughout the years. With Albert Lea especially, we have a chip with each other when we’re playing. We’re not friends on the court, but off the court, they’re good guys. I respect their program a lot. They came from nothing to something. I’m never going to take anything away from them.”

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The regular season matchups couldn’t have been closer between between the Packers (23-5 overall) and Tigers (13-13 overall). AL beat Austin for the first time since 2005 when it topped the Packers 72-71 in Austin on Jan. 21 and the game in AL came down to the final possession.

Austin’s Pierre Lilly guard’s Albert Lea’s Andrew Willner during the Packer Gym. Herald File Photo

Austin head coach Kris Fadness said the Packers will have to force turnovers, make shots and control the boards to be successful. They will also have to keep AL senior big man Chay Guen in check.

“They’ve got an extremely talented big man in Chay Guen, who has developed in time. We thought he was a force last year and this year he’s gone to a different level,” Fadness said. “He’s been dominant against us around the basket, whether it’s him blocking shots or him getting to the basket. I think we’ll be a little bit better prepared for him this time.”

Seniors Connor Vedman and Koby Hendrickson are two other Tigers the Packers will have to worry about.

AL went 4-102 last four seasons combined before breaking through this season.

“They’re a senior dominated team and these guys have been through a lot in their careers,” Fadness said. “I know that the guys who worked with them this summer really busted their tails for them. We saw them at a lot of events.”

Austin senior Pierre Lilly, who has been playing against this group of Tigers since he was a freshman, is ready for the Tigers to bring everything they have on Friday night.

“I’m expecting them to come out fast and hard. This is a rivalry game and this is a big game,” Lilly said. “Chay is going to come out hard and he’s one of their consistent scorers. We’ve got to really match up to him and we’ve got to fly after JJ, because he can hit the pull-up three.”