River Falls topples Chi-Hi, wins eighth consecutive

Posted 1/24/23

Sophomore starter Preston Johnson to miss extended time with ankle injury During the final four minutes of Friday night’s home game against Chippewa Falls, River Falls outscored Chi-Hi 17-5 to …

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River Falls topples Chi-Hi, wins eighth consecutive


Sophomore starter Preston Johnson to miss extended time with ankle injury

During the final four minutes of Friday night’s home game against Chippewa Falls, River Falls outscored Chi-Hi 17-5 to clinch the 67-54 victory, marking the eighth consecutive for the red-hot Wildcats.

The eight-game heater dates back to the final game before Christmas when the Wildcats traveled to Chippewa Falls and suffered an 85-81 overtime loss against the same Chi-Hi team that River Falls beat on Friday night. For River Falls head coach Zac Campbell, the monthlong chain of victories resulted from lowering turnovers, shooting better and simply gaining varsity experience.

“Compared to the early season, we’ve limited our turnovers, we’ve cut them in half per game,” Campbell said. “We’ve got guys shooting it with a lot more confidence and the speed of the game has slowed down. They were in survival mode early in the year and now it’s slowed down so they can make reads and we can do a little bit more (offensively) now.”

While River Falls limited turnovers and shot it effectively against Chi-Hi on Friday night, perhaps the most impressive aspect was earning the victory without sophomore starting point guard Preston Johnson, who broke his ankle in the waning minutes of Thursday night’s practice.

“Preston got bad news on the X-ray today, that’s for sure. He’s meeting a specialist next Thursday,” Campbell said of the injury. “Typically these things take a while, but we would love to get him back for the playoffs. To be honest, it’s been a little bit of a grieving process for a kid that works really hard.”

Johnson’s injury comes at a devastating time for River Falls, as the sophomore standout was a catalyst for the eight-game streak dating back to the first game of the Menomonie Holiday Classic against Tomah.

Johnson averaged 14.8 points per game in the seven consecutive wins leading up to Friday night’s game, including a season-high 24 against La Crosse Logan on Jan. 10. Coach Campbell spoke about how his team changes with Johnson gone for an extended stretch.

“As we start getting some practices without Preston, our identity will have to switch a little bit,” Campbell said. One of the biggest changes will be junior guard Joey Butz acclimating to a primary ball handler role, something that Johnson previously did this season. “Joey is so good in transition, but if we’re going to have him ball in hand, that kills part of our transition game because he’s so good at playing transition guard.”

Losing Johnson doesn’t only impact the transition game, which will now be severely limited as Butz moves to a primary ball handler role instead of his usual transition guard position, but losing Johnson means River Falls loses its best downhill slashing guard that can finish at the rim. Coach Campbell spoke about how his team will have to adjust offensively.

“For us offensively, we’re going to have to be able to score from the block, we just don’t have guys that can turn into downhill guys (like Johnson),” Campbell said. “That starts with Jonah Severson and Eli Johnson being a presence for us and being able to score at a high clip.”

Despite missing Preston Johnson and Severson and Eli Johnson struggling to score in the interior, River Falls still secured a double- digit victory over Chi-Hi. The Wildcats replaced their much-needed interior scoring with excellent perimeter shooting, as River Falls finished 10-21 (47%) from beyond the arc.

In Preston Johnson’s absence, other perimeter players stepped up, especially senior guard Nate Gervais, who earned his first start of the season because of the injury. Gervais finished with 10 points on 66% shooting from the floor, which included a pair of three-pointers that helped River Falls build an early lead. Campbell spoke about how his guards stepped in the first game without Preston Johnson.

“That’s the MO of this team,” Campbell said. “When Preston goes down that hurts us from an individual standpoint, but it’s not about one guy, Nate (Gervais) or anybody else doing what Preston did, it’s about a group of guys collectively locking in a little bit more. Somebody will be getting those shots and rebounds, but it has to be a collective whole for us.”

The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. River Falls is slated to play both Eau Claire Memorial and Hudson in the next two weeks, which are currently the only two programs in the Big Rivers Conference with a better record than Campbell’s Wildcats.

River Falls played both teams down to the wire in their first meetings earlier this season. Given how the Wildcats have played throughout the last month, knocking off Memorial or Hudson – or both – wasn’t out of the question, which would have brought a conference championship into play. For coach Campbell, catching Memorial and Hudson is still a real possibility.

“We’ve won five in a row, so I have to say they are for sure,” Campbell said. “I’ll answer that question next Saturday night when we have Memorial here.”

River Falls extended its win streak to nine games with a 58-54 non-conference win against Superior at home on Monday, Jan. 23. The Wildcats are slated to be back in action at home against Eau Claire Memorial on Saturday, Jan. 28. That game is scheduled to begin at 7:15 p.m.

River Falls senior guard Nate Gervais looks for an open teammate during the home game against Chippewa Falls on Friday, Jan. 20. Gervais made the start in place of sophomore guard Preston Johnson, who broke his ankle in Thursday night’s practice. Coach Campbell spoke highly of Gervais after his first start of the season. Photo by Reagan Hoverman