The only time Fulda’s boys earned a trip to the state basketball tournament was way back in 1975.
The Heron Lake-Okabena boys have never been there.
Could history be made this winter for the HL-O/Fulda boys of coach Colby Pack?
“I think the optimism is high, so time will tell,” Pack said. “We’ve got a lot of pieces that give us hope.”
The Coyotes, in this the second season of the HL-O/Fulda pairing, are led by Eli Fest, a 6-3 senior guard.
“Honestly, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime player, not just because of the on-court stuff but because of the intangibles he brings,” said Pack, a veteran of more than 10 years on the bench. “He’s scored 1,200 points in his career and probably averaged six or seven rebounds and five assists last year. Anytime you’ve got that kind of player coming back — he had his best games against the Southwest Christians and the Westbrook-Walnut Groves last year — and he’s super excited for our team to follow suit.”
Zach Thier (12 ppg last season) is a 3-point specialist, and Isaiah Schmid is a 6-5 performer who can play inside and out. Trevor King is much-improved after battling injuries last year.
Those returning veterans provide plenty of depth, and incoming transfers Carter Drent and Sawyer Drent have returned to the HL-O/Fulda school district after two years in Iowa. Carter is a 6-6 junior who can play above the rim and Sawyer, a sophomore guard, averaged double digits as a freshman during varsity ball last season at Akron-Westfield in Iowa.
The brothers’ father, Jeff Drent, is a former all-around sports star at Worthington and member of the Trojans’ athletic Hall of Fame. Jeff, who formerly taught at Brewster, currently teaches at HL-O and is on Pack’s coaching staff.
“Those six guys are a pretty exciting core group of players,” Pack said. “We’ve got a few others who will contribute, too.
“The potential is really there for this squad.”
Last year, southwest Minnesota would have had two boys basketball teams — Southwest Christian and Jackson County Central — make trips to their respective state tournaments. The state’s reaction to COVID-19, of course, canceled those competitions.
Southwest Christian and coach Jamie Pap had a fantastic season a year ago, winning all 29 of their games. The Eagles lost superstars Jacob Van Dam, Avery Pater and Kade Fey to graduation. All topped the 1,000-point mark in their careers. Van Dam and Pater were Globe first-team All-Area performers last winter, while Fey was named to the second team.
But Pap’s tradition-rich program is expected to rebuild thanks to talented holdovers Hunter Vander Haar and Micah Schaap.
The JCC Huskies also suffered heavy graduation losses, including Globe first-team All-Area star Rudy Voss and second-teamer Andrew Hesebeck. Voss, who is now on the football team at South Dakota State, scored more than 2,000 career points and averaged 28.2 ppg last winter for a team that finished 20-7 and won the 3AA Section championship.
“We are very excited about the mix of seniors, juniors and sophomores we have,” said JCC coach Alex Hein. “One of our biggest strengths will be our depth ... We are inexperienced, but talented, which means we might hit some bumps along the way. But we believe we have all the makings to make another run.”
Carter Ahrens is a tremendous 3-point shooter and fellow senior Trevin Gaustad is extremely athletic.
Among the teams expected to be competitive in the Big South Conference and Section 3AA are Pipestone Area, Luverne and Windom Area. Pipestone features talented post player Dawson Kellen plus veterans Aaron Lingen and Connor Zephier, while Luverne is led by athletic performers Bailey Cowell and Gannon Ahrendt. Windom Area is led by twins Austin and Sam Doorenbos. Dylan Serreyn, Connor Redman and Henry Erickson are also capable scorers for the Eagles.
In the Red Rock Conference and Section 3A, defending champion Southwest Christian and highly regarded HL-O/Fulda will have plenty of competition.
Westbrook-Walnut Grove, coached by Derrick Jenniges, returns most of its starting lineup, a group led by Globe first-team All-Area star Ethan Mischke. The talented southpaw guard averaged 19 ppg last winter and has already established school records for assists and steals.
Also returning for W-WG are exceptional players like Hunter Lien and Nathan Kuehl. Jenniges led the Chargers to the state tournament two years ago, the last of three straight 24-victory seasons for W-WG.
At Murray County Central, the Rebels of coach Tim Cariveau also hope to contend.
“There are going to be many solid teams and we expect to be one of them,” Cariveau said. “It’s going to take great practices all season and executing at a high level each game to have the kind of season we are striving for.”
The Rebels can rely on Blake Schmitz, a 6-3 guard who is among the top players in the Red Rock. He led MCC in scoring and was second in rebounds and assists last winter.
Chant Mitchell, a 6-6 center and talented scorer, and rugged defensive specialist Dylan Johnson also return to the starting lineup. Others who could see meaningful minutes for the Rebels include Adam Winter, Colton Mitchell, Nate Kleven, Chayce Johnson and sharpshooting Eli Hernandez.
Other talented players in the Red Rock include Edgerton’s Gabe Gilbertson, Peyton Lewis of Adrian/Ellsworth, Gavin Wysong of Hills-Beaver Creek, and big man Mason Gode of Red Rock Central.