Minnesota West men lack depth but maintain fighting spirit
It's been a struggle for the Minnesota West men's basketball team this winter, but coach Brian Stoebner's Bluejays keep plugging away
WORTHINGTON -- Minnesota West Community and Technical College men’s basketball coach Brian Stoebner is proud of his team. He repeats it as often as anybody wants to hear. No one should feel sorry for the Bluejays, he maintains.
Injuries, illnesses and defections have made the 2022-23 season difficult at times, to be sure. The Jays started out with 17 players and they’re less than half that today. While the college’s women’s team is going strong, ranked No. 3 in the nation, the men haven’t taken the court yet with their full complement of players.
Is it tough? Sure it’s tough. But that’s basketball.
“As a coach, it’s frustrating. We put together a great group of guys this year,” Stoebner said on Monday. “But when you get down to seven or eight guys, it’s tough. When you have someone who’s having a tough game, there’s not another guy you can turn to.”
The Minnesota West men have lost seven straight heading into Wednesday night’s 7:30 p.m. contest (Feb. 1) against Riverland, a team the Jays lost to 82-61 on Jan. 5. They are 5-16 on the season. Their latest setback was Saturday at St. Cloud Tech, 84-64, in a game where only seven Bluejays saw minutes.
The Bluejays were further buffeted on Jan. 25 when former Worthington High School standout Brock Bruns succumbed to an MCL sprain. Bruns had been playing very well in recent games leading up to the injury, maintaining his ability to score while improving his rebounding prowess. Stoebner said it’s uncertain whether Bruns can return to the lineup for any of the team’s five remaining games.
Meanwhile, the Bluejays continue to do the best they can despite the fact that they lack depth. They’re also struggling to keep up with their rivals in the rebounding department, as they’ve lost key players who rebound well. Turnovers continue to be a problem, and so Stoebner and his assistant, Dan Bruns, must constantly remind their players to play within themselves and not give in to the very human tendency to make up for their shortcomings by trying to do too much.
“Our biggest issue is not taking care of the ball well enough. … But I’m proud of the way we continue to fight,” Stoebner said.
Stoebner took over the program’s leadership just in time for the 2021-22 campaign to begin. It was a late hire, and the players didn’t respond to his coaching as quickly as they otherwise might under those unusual circumstances. On-court discipline was hard to come by.
Things are better now.
“They’re trying to do the right stuff,” Stoebner professed.
Leaders have stepped up. One of them is Bie Ruei, a 6-5 freshman from Sioux City, Iowa, who Stoebner says does everything that is asked. Ruei is a top scorer and rebounder who also plays excellent defense, and he possesses the tenacity to “get after people.”
Elijah Williams and Kong Neyail have also been consistently productive players, along with Bruns, who according to the coach, “leads by example.” Other Bluejays, too, have stepped up in important moments.
“They’re playing hard. And for the most part, they’re doing a great job. But we’re struggling now,” Stoebner said of his team.
He’s pleased and proud of his Lady Jay basketball counterparts, who are winning regularly and maintaining their hold on the upper branches of the national Division III rankings. He’s looking forward to the day, he said, when the West men’s program can enjoy similar success.
Until then, Stoebner says his Bluejay men try to minimize their mistakes and hold each other accountable, which is the hallmark of a good team. And it continues to be important, he said, that players always do their best in the classroom as well as on the court.
“At the end of it all, we’re just trying to help them become better young men,” he said. “Just trying to stress continually being a team.”