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Cardinals, Arrows look to regroup following large graduating classes

WORTHINGTON -- While graduation took a heavy toll on both Luverne and Pipestone Area, several experienced players return for both Jackson County Central and Windom, as the four area boys' basketball teams prepare for the upcoming season.

Playing in the seven-team Southwest Conference, along with Marshall, Redwood Valley and Worthington, the Cardinals, Arrows, Huskies and Eagles each appear to have the athletes and basketball tradition to compete in what may be a closely-contested, evenly-balanced league chase.

Here is a brief look at four of the Southwest Conference boys' teams:

Luverne Cardinals

Luverne finished 21-9 last season, including a Section 3AA championship and a fourth-place finish at the state tournament.

Graduation took its toll on the Cardinals, however, as only 6-3 senior guard Weston Sawtelle returns to the starting line-up. Derek Boeve, Marc Boelman, Jake Clark and Andrew DeBoer each received LHS diplomas last spring.

Sawtelle is a fine all-around athlete with good quickness and leaping ability -- to go along with his basketball experience. Sawtelle was a varsity contributor two years ago as a sophomore and was a major force in Luverne's tournament run last season.

While Sawtelle is the only returning starter, the Cardinals do have three other seniors that contributed off the bench last winter and will be looked for increased roles this season. Erik Stegemann (6-3, guard), Jeremy Hoff (6-0, guard) and Kyle Heronimus (6-1, post) are those three players that Cardinal head coach Tom Rops utilized as key reserves last season.

Stegemann is a good shooter and both Hoff and Heronimus are strong all-around athletes, coming off key roles on Luverne's highly-successful football campaign (12-2, state AA runner-up)

"We will not be very tall this year," Rops said. "But we believe that we will become a very smart team with some athleticism."

Other players that Rops will be counting on include seniors Markus Staeffler (6-4, post) and Matt Kreuch (6-1, post), along with juniors Zach Clark (5-11, guard) and Devin Nelson (5-10, guard). Clark, however, will be sidelined until mid-January with a broken collarbone, suffered during the state football tournament.

Five sophomores -- Trevor Stoffel (5-8, guard), Ryan Hoff (6-2, post), Michael Graff (6-2, guard), Josh Boomgaarden (5-11, guard) and Landon Gacke (6-1, post) will give the Cardinals additional depth and versatility.

Pipestone Area Arrows

Pipestone Area was hit hard by graduation, losing six quality players off of last year's team, which sported a 5-7 conference record, while going 14-12 overall.

Just four lettermen are back for veteran head coach Todd Tinklenberg, who has always had teams that play good, intense defense.

Leading the '07-08 Arrows will be returning starters Doug Mead and Greg Quist, both seniors. Quist, a strong 6-3 center, and Mead, a versatile 6-1 forward, were PA's leading scorers last season and give Tinklenberg a nice core to build around.

Sam Schneider, a 6-0 senior guard, and Mitchell Nelson, a 6-0 senior forward, also lettered for the Arrows last winter and will contribute, as will 6-1 junior guard Michael Nettik, 6-2 junior center Shelby Jones, 6-4 junior center Tyler Maschino and 6-4 junior forward Bruce Beyers.

"We lack overall experience," Tinklenberg said. "But we return our top two scorers and have several juniors that will provide the pieces to the puzzle that will make us competitive. I think quickness and aggressiveness are two strengths of this team. We will have to become a good rebounding team to be successful."

Tinklenberg points to Worthington, Luverne, Redwood Valley and Marshall as the conference favorites, while Montevideo, Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop, Luverne and Martin County West are all contenders in the newly-aligned Section 3AA.

Jackson County Central Huskies

Having improved from a 4-20 season two years ago to a mark of 10-14 (4-8 in the conference) last winter, the Jackson County Central Huskies, under second-year head coach Trent Sukalski, look to continue getting better.

Four top-notch all-around athletes return with lots of experience for JCC, including 6-2 senior forward Scott Benson, who averaged nearly 14 points per game last season and was an all-conference honorable mention selection. An outstanding golfer, Benson brings great versatility to the basketball court

Ryan Rasche, a 6-2 left-handed guard, averaged over nine points per contest last year and brings back his athleticism and experience.

Rasche injured a finger in the football playoffs and will likely miss JCC's first four games.

Pat Garvin, a versatile 6-3 junior forward, led the Huskies in assists in '06-07 and handles the ball well. With good height, he sees the floor well, while being able to penetrate and pass.

Nathan Brandt, a 6-1 junior guard, was JCC's quarterback this past fall and Sukalski considers him the team's best defensive player on the basketball court. Brandt has also shown the ability to knock down the 3-point shot.

Seniors Evan Sieler and Luke Nelson, along with juniors Nick Ollerich and Chris Chonko will give the Huskies good depth, as they approach the upcoming season.

"We play in a tough conference," Sukalski. "We believe that we can be competitive with a good nucleus of returning players that are familiar with our system and are anxious to play the game."

Windom Eagles

Four returning starters, plus three others that played substantial minutes, are back for the Windom Eagles.

Headlining that group is 5-10 senior guard Michael Johnson, who will be starting for a fifth season and is Windom's all-time leading scorer, having surpassed the 1,000-point mark last winter.

Joining Johnson as returning Eagle starters are 6-4 senior post Brett Dumke, 6-2 senior forward Bryce Grove and 5-11 junior guard Ryan Gilbertson. Grove and Gilbertson were starters for Windom last season, while Dumke and Johnson were both starters as sophomores two years ago in '05-06 when the Eagles won 18 games.

"We have good experience coming back," Windom head coach Corey Christopher said. "We have the four returning starters, three top reserves and some talented young players coming up."

Lukas Gotto (5-11 senior guard), Tyler Bennett (5-9 senior guard) and Jake Holt (6-5 eighth-grade post) each played a key role for the Eagles off the bench last season. Christopher also likes what he sees in a pair of promising freshmen, 6-0 forward Spenser Kipfer and 6-3 post Travis Mattson.

Hard-hit by graduation following the successful '05-06 season, the Eagles went 7-18 overall last year and were 0-12 in the Southwest. But with seven veterans back, look for Windom to surprise some teams this season with their experience, athleticism and depth.