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Boys basketball preview: Southwest Christian returns from state title year

Les Knutson

Daily Globe

EDGERTON — Three starters and two key reserves graduated off of Southwest Minnesota Christian’s Class A state championship boys’ basketball team, but yet the Eagles — who have consistently played aggressive man-to-man defense and distributed the ball so well offensively — are once again considered to be one of the area’s best teams.

Due to a change by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), the 2013-14 boys’ season has been moved up two weeks, with the state tournament scheduled for March 12-15 in Minneapolis.

Last year, four teams from the two conferences covered by the Daily Globe won section championships and earned the opportunity to play in the state tournament, including Southwest Christian, which repeated as Section 3A champions and won a fifth state title (the Eagles won four straight from 1998-2001) after claiming second-place honors in 2012.

Mountain Lake Area (a second-year combination of Mountain Lake Public and Mountain Lake Christian) is also a returning state-tournament team. The Wolverines (as MLA last season, and as Mountain Lake/Butterfield-Odin in 2012) have won back-to-back Section 2A championships.

Coming off an exceptional football season and returning a trio of basketball starters, the Wolverines are considered one of the area’s best again this winter.

While both SWC and MLA represented the 11-team Red Rock Conference in Minneapolis last March, the two most northern schools of the seven-team Southwest Conference — Marshall and Redwood Valley — also played in the 2013 state tournament.

After winning Section 2AAA, Marshall won a pair of games in Minneapolis, bringing home a third-place trophy. Redwood Valley played very well in the post-season and claimed the Section 3AA championship.

The area has a rich history of doing well at the state tournament, evidenced by Southwest Christian’s five state titles, a pair of recent (2007 and 2008) state championships by Ellsworth, and — of course — the remarkable run of five state crowns in a 13-year span by teams from the southwest corner, from 1960-1972. Edgerton (1960), Marshall (1963), Luverne (1964) and Sherburn (1970) all won elite one-class titles, before St. James (1972) claimed the second-ever Class A title and then defeated Mounds View in the playoff game for the overall state championship.

Southwest Conference may be very balanced

Defending league champion Marshall, coached for the second season by Fulda native Travis Carroll, was hit hard by graduation, losing four starters and a pair of top reserves.

But with abundant numbers, the Tigers have the talent and depth to simply reload and do return senior all-conference center Riley Sharbono, a very versatile performer, from last year’s squad, which won 29 of 32 games.

Redwood Valley is coached by former Ellsworth mentor Markus Okeson, who guided the Panthers to three straight state championship games (’06-08). The Cardinals lack height, but are fundamentally-skilled and play team great defense with a lot of passion.

The addition of junior guard Sam Pendleton, who starred for Cedar Mountain/Comfrey the past couple of seasons, will help Redwood contend again.

Luverne has a new head coach as John Sichmeller and Tom Rops switch roles this season.

The Cardinals were 6-6 in league action last winter and return senior starters Josh Slieter and Blake Ziegler. Quinton Siebenahler, a 6-6 sophomore with some speed, is one of tallest players in the conference.

Jackson County Central, coached by Trent Sukalski, was 5-7 in conference play last season and fashioned a 16-10 overall record. Jon Harmening and Darnell Taylor-Breck are the top returning Huskies.

Windom, under third-year head coach Dane Nielsen, returns seniors Jacob Gotto and Bryce Bever. Junior Kyle Antes is a hard working “gym rat” and — along with a talented sophomore class — will strive to make the Eagles as competitive as always.

Pipestone Area did not win a conference game last winter, but did finish 6-18 overall.

Veteran coach Ed Gustafson returns to lead the Arrows, who were young last season, playing quite a few sophomores.

Three of those players —Boyer Bauman, Collin Mueller and Dominic Freese —are now juniors.

Eagles, Wolverines are pegged as

Red Rock Conference favorites

Mountain Lake Area and Southwest Christian will square off in their only conference clash this season at Mountain Lake’s gym on Dec. 20.

But, according to SWC head coach Jamie Pap, there’s a lot of important games on tap for the Eagles.

“In the Red Rock Conference, all the games are tough,” he says. “It’s anybody’s game any night out. That’s why we play ‘em — there’s lots of quality competition in our league.”

The Eagles return starters Leighton Sampson (6-5) and Nate Pfeifle (6-1) from last year’s 30-1 squad, while Clayton Huisken (5-11) is poised to take charge as SWC’s primary point guard this season.

MLA graduated six players, but return a wealth of talent, including the potent inside-outside combination of Carter Kirk (6-7) and Andrew Hempeck (6-2). The Wolverines were 24-6 overall last winter, finishing second in the conference with a 14-2 mark.

Red Rock Central tied for third (with Hills-Beaver Creek) in the league last year, but graduated a bundle, including the one-two scoring and rebounding punch of Jeff DeCock and Henry Rogotzke.

The Falcons have only three seniors (Sam Halter, Tanner Pederson and Austin Price) and a trio of juniors on their roster, but have a tall and talented freshman class preparing for the future.

H-BC brings back more veterans, as all-conference senior guard Dylan Gehrke and 6-4 junior Carey Taubert (honorable mention all-conference) return from last year’s starting lineup. Seniors Jeff Nelson and Isaac Tilstra and junior Braden Ellingson also contributed for the Patriots last winter.

Seniors Aaron Fest (6-2) Brandon Thurk (6-1) and Zach Schumacher (6-5, honorable mention all-conference) return with the most experience for Southwestern United (10-14, 7-9), while junior Trey Cranston (6-1) moves up after two stellar seasons on the Wildcat B-squad.

Fulda (9-18, 7-9) graduated most of its scoring punch, but the Raiders return a trio of quality seniors in Josh Ramerth (6-3), Cole Dierks (5-9) and Ryan Schumacher (6-2).

Edgerton (9-13, 7-9) will likely be led by seniors Jesse Berning (5-9) and Austin Mertens (6-5). Berning was one of the league’s best 3-point shooters last season.

Ellsworth (8-19, 6-10) returns senior all-conference sharpshooter Mitch Leuthold (6-2), along with seniors Drew Cheskie (6-4), Tim Nolte (6-1) and Johnathon Kramer (5-7), one of the conference’s best passers.

Westbrook-Walnut Grove (10-16) overall, was just 5-11 in conference games last season. But, the Chargers had a good B-squad and many area fans are looking at W-WG to climb up the ladder in the standings this year.

Senior Alex Knutson (6-0) earned honorable mention all-conference honors last winter and fellow seniors Shane Buchman (6-2) and Matt Otto (5-11) are coming off strong football seasons.

Adrian (4-22, 3-13) has a load of experience returning, including senior Nick Reyne (6-3) and juniors Taylor Recker (6-4), Collin Kemper (5-9) and Brady Lonneman (6-4). The Dragons were competitive in most games last season and continue to be on the upswing with 12 freshmen participating this season.

Murray County Central (3-20, 3-13) graduated several key players, but return senior Seth Bass from last year’s starting lineup. Juniors Logan Kluis and Grant Everson played some for the Rebels’ varsity last season and a very strong sophomore class is waiting in the wings. MCC has won the conference’s freshman tournament the past two seasons.

The Rebels host rival Fulda tonight, as league action unfolds.