When Levi Hollinger moved to North Dakota in the fifth grade, he said he didn’t even like basketball. It took his new classmates in New England to convince him he should try playing.
“Everybody wanted me to go out, so I tried it and it worked out good and I loved it ever since,” Hollinger said.
Today, who knows where the Tigers would be without him?
Described by teammates as a dedicated and relentless player, Hollinger has been the engine driving the New England boys basketball team this season.
For two seasons, he was a role player behind the trio of Kaine Hanson, Clarence Binstock and Nick Wolf and, while on teams that were momentarily ranked in the Class B poll and won the District 13 championship in 2011, was never regarded by opponents as the player they had to stop.
In Hollinger’s first two seasons on the Tigers’ varsity, he only led the team in scoring once and never scored more than 17 points in a game.
This season, he is averaging 19.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He finished the regular season ranked fourth in Region 7 in points per game and the Tigers (9-10) have lost three of the four games he hasn’t led them in scoring.
“My role has changed,” Hollinger said. “Last season I wasn’t the depended guy to score. This year I am.”
Combining a mix of speed and strength that bears more resemblance to a Power-I tailback than a shooting guard, the Tigers have fed off the 6-foot-1 Hollinger’s ability to drive hard to the basket.
“He’s a real athletic kid and finishes at the rim,” said New England head coach Luke Powers, who began giving Hollinger varsity minutes as a sophomore. “At the same time, he has a nice little midrange pull-up game.”
As an underclassman, Hollinger’s biggest attribute was his ability to get open for 3-pointers, spreading out the Tigers’ offense and giving them another deep-ball shooter on a team already rich with them.
That trait has carried over to this season.
“He gives us the true offensive weapon, someone that all teams have to focus on every game, no matter who he plays and where at,” New England senior guard Austin Fitterer said. “He’s improved so much since he was a freshman and sophomore.”
Because Hollinger has been given the green light to fire away from deep, Powers can’t say much about the senior’s unorthodox shooting form that’s less hand-in-the-cookie-jar prototype and more like a cannon launch, choosing not to argue with its results.
“He’s a streaky shooter,” Powers said. “If he hits a couple, watch out.”
Defensively, Powers said Hollinger is often tasked with guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player.
On Jan. 8, he held Mott-Regent senior guard Taylor Zentner — Region 7’s leading scorer at 21.5 points per game — to 13 points. It was Zentner’s second-lowest output this season while Hollinger scored a game-high 18 to lead New England to a 51-42 victory.
“He usually guards the best player on the other team because of his size and length,” Fitterer said. “He rebounds well. He runs the floor better than most kids anywhere.”
Unbeknownst to many fans outside of New England and Lefor — he lives just outside of the tiny burg south of Dickinson — is that Hollinger lost his mother Lori when he was 6 years old. She died of complications from breast cancer.
“In spite of something like that, you’d never know he’d had something tragic like that happen because he’s such a great kid,” Powers said.
Hollinger said he his father, Dion, do nearly everything together. They enjoy the outdoors, take road trips and watch dirt-track racing at the Southwest Speedway, where they have helped his uncle, Troy Hollinger, and Fran Martin with their racing efforts.
“It’s been hard growing up without a mom, but me and my dad have managed through all these years,” Hollinger said. “It would be better, but we’ve managed.”
As the Tigers gear up for the District 13 Tournament that begins Friday when they play Hettinger-Scranton at 6 p.m. at Knights of Columbus Activities Center, Hollinger can’t help but think back to the Tigers’ 2011 District 13 championship and their letdown in last year’s district tournament that put them in position to be ousted by eventual state champion Beulah in the opening round of the Region 7 Tournament.
“Last year we had a good run, could have — probably should have — went farther, but it is what it is,” Hollinger said.
Intent on making sure his final season lasts as long as possible, Hollinger said the fifth-seeded Tigers aren’t just confident they can get back to the region tournament. They feel they’re good enough to win the district.
“The way we’re playing now, we can make a good run at the regionals. I believe we have a good chance to win the district this year,” Hollinger said. “We’ve been putting everything together. We’ve been playing good. Everybody is discovering their roles and coach is doing what he needs to do and it’s working out.”