EDGERTON -- The question everybody wants to know the answer to is simple: How in the world has the Southwest Minnesota Christian boys basketball team started the year so impressively after graduating three thousand-point scorers from the year before?
Veteran head coach Jamie Pap has a ready answer.
“The guys that are getting a majority of the playing time this year, do you know who they were going against in practice last year?”
I mean, cmon.
“They are very adapted to play against a high level of competition,” Pap said.
Heading into Tuesday’s game against a very good Westbrook-Walnut Grove squad, the Eagles owned an 8-0 record. They finished 29-0 in the 2019-20 campaign with superstars Avery Pater, Jacob Van Dam and Kade Fey leading the way.
But the “big three” were seniors last year. They’re gone. The players taking over, Pap said, were ready for their moment. They’d gone against the best in practice, and learned the lessons they were taught.
“Our practices can be very competitive,” the coach explained. “Game days can be more like a day off for the boys, like, ‘Good, now we can just go out there and play.’”
Some of the names in 2021 are familiar. Returning starters Micah Schaap (6-2 junior guard) and Carter Van Hulzen (6-5 junior forward) are joined on the front line by senior Hunter Vander Haar, sophomore Dawson Rieck and junior Cole Walhof. Zach Prins and Jacob Raak, two seniors, are key performers off the bench.
Together, they have talents that fit seamlessly into the team concept. Vander Haar and Van Hulzen can play defense both inside and outside. Vander Haar is a calming influence on his teammates, and though he’s a little undersized for playing in the paint, he’s a leader who does the tough work. Van Hulzen, a first cousin to the graduated Kade Fey, is a good shot-blocker who can also hit the jumper.
Schaap has accepted the point guard position from Pater. He is a leader as a junior, and he’s also a quick defender who can blow by opponents with the ball. Just 6-2, he can dunk.
“These guys are really, like, ‘It’s our year,” Pap said.
The previous season was definitely Southwest Christian’s year.
Well, it was … and it wasn’t.
Their perfect record situated them perfectly for the state tournament. But almost immediately after they clinched their section championship, the state tourney was canceled by the Minnesota State High School League because of COVID-19. The Eagles were immensely disappointed; they felt their chances for winning a trophy was outstanding, and suddenly the ball was taken out of their hands.
Today, Pap says last year’s team will always be “near to me” for all that it went through. But this is another year, and it’s time to turn the page.
Pap and his fine assistant coach, Matt Vande Kamp, have got their priorities in order.
“We have today,” Pap said. “Let’s use today and do our best to honor God, because that’s all we have is today. We’re just taking one game at a time and let the chips fall where they may.”
This year’s team wins with offensive balance and exceptional defense.
“Last year we always had those three seniors where we knew one of those guys are always going to show up. This year … you never know who it’s going to be,” explained Pap.
He adds: “Offense comes and goes. Defense is always there. I always tell the players, especially this year, ‘We stay the same no matter what, whether we’re up by 10 or down by 10.’”
He calls defense a “structure” where all five players on the court must be on the same page.
“If one guy is off, the other team gets a layup.”
It’s crucial that the players know exactly where they need to be at all times. You don’t have to be especially quick, but if you’re in the right spot you can get a half dozen steals or more. And players who don’t play much in games play very hard in practice. They realize they have a very important role to play, and they embrace it.
“They deeply care about it,” said Pap.
And the total team effort pays off in games. Pap explained that win or lose, he wants his players to look back on their high school careers and to be able to say they had “a blast.”
Last season didn’t end with the sort of fun times the Eagles were planning for. But, so far, this season is putting a smile on the faces of a lot of Edgerton hoops fans.