All season the Alpena boys basketball team has racked up wins and answered one challenge after another.
But the Wildcats' biggest challenge is yet to come and tonight they'll have to prove very quickly just how good they are.
Alpena will host Marquette tonight in a Class A district quarterfinal at 7 p.m. The matchup is a rematch of last year's district final, a game the Redmen won 64-50.
For one of these two teams, a great season is going to end too soon. The Wildcats (18-1) won the Big North Conference title to go with an impressive 18-game winning streak. Marquette (18-1) has been just as solid this season after bringing back several players from last year's district title team.
"All of a sudden the great season is over. The regular season is over and you have to face a great team," Alpena coach John Pintar said. "They're really good. They're seasoned; they've got a lot of veterans and been through it the last couple years. We know it's going to be a difficult game for us."
Alpena fell behind 27-10 early during last year's game with Marquette and spent the rest of the contest trying to catch up. The Redmen drained seven three-pointers and could be just as deadly this time around with the returning senior backcourt of Larry Burnette III and Brad Brow as well as Andrew Nyquist.
The advantage the Redmen won't have this time around however is the home crowd. The Wildcats played to a packed crowd last Thursday in a win over Ogemaw Heights, but tonight could see both ends of the gym packed with fans.
"We struggled at the start and they're home court was huge for them. They have a court where they're right on top of you and they fed off their fans early," Pintar said. "We weren't up to the pace right away and when we got there, they had already taken control unfortunately, so we were constantly fighting from 10-12 range all night."
The Wildcats have shown the ability to score down low or shoot from outside depending on what an opponent throws at them. Both options will likely be needed tonight with the season on the line. Tyler Pintar, Brad Styma, Kaleb Smith and Dylan Hoes are all strong outside shooters, but they aren't afraid to drive inside or fight for rebounds either.
Senior forward Andy Marwede is a perfect example of Alpena's versatility. Marwede, who averages more than 20 points a game, has a deft shooting touch, but is just as comfortable banging down low along with fellow forward Cody Tucker. He's also been Alpena's go-to player in crunch time and he'll likely be called upon again tonight if Alpena's trailing.
Having such a tough test right out of the gate can be daunting, but it's a challenge the Wildcats are embracing.
"I think it's a good thing to have this hard of a game our first game. If we can win this game, we can get things rolling, we've just got to take it one game at a time," Tyler Pintar said. "It was loud there so hopefully we'll have home court advantage this time and our fans will be going crazy in the stands. There will be a lot of hype in it and hopefully we come out and get it done."
The winner will play at either Petoskey or Traverse City Central on Wednesday.
James Andersen can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.