BOYS BASKETBALL PREVIEWS: Solon Springs hoping to fly under the radarTigers have new coach; Spartans need to replace key players
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
The Solon Springs Eagles are hoping to glide into the 2011-12 basketball season as no more than a blip in the minds of their opponents.
“I want to stay under the radar and not have people worrying about us,” said Dale Rajala, Eagles head coach. “I still want to remain the underdog and keep it as low-key as possible.”
Rajala may get his wish for a week or two, but with a few more games like Thursday’s 63-48 victory over South Shore, the Eagles are sure to draw some notice.
Solon Springs returns four starters and an experienced group of reserve players for one of the strongest teams the school has known in recent years.
The Eagles had their first chance to test their mettle on Nov. 22 with a scrimmage at Northwestern High School in Maple. Though no official score was kept, the Eagles held their own and often had the Tigers scrambling.
Rajala was pleasantly surprised with how well his players adapted to an unfamiliar gym and matched up against Northwestern, a Division 3 school.
“I was very happy with our physical game and our shooting,” Rajala said. “The rims are like at Northwood, they don’t bounce very much.”
David Gustafson, starting his first year as head coach of the Tigers, used the scrimmage to test various sets on offense and defense. He said the scrimmage gave him an opportunity to see what his players could do, but it also served as a wake-up call when the smaller Solon Springs team managed to outrebound the Tigers.
Rajala hopes aggressive play on the boards will be a hallmark for the Eagles this season.
Success for Solon Springs will all come down to control, he said. On defense, the Eagles need to control the boards. On offense, they’ll need to control the pace of the game.
“We’ve never been that good of a very fast, transition offense, so what I want to do is we need to control our possessions,” Rajala said. “We’re much better in our offensive set when we control our possessions.”
The Eagles are a team that can thrive in a half-court set. It’s only when the players begin to rush that the team falters, Rajala said. Too often, the hurried pace leads to turnovers that give opponents easy points.
“We tried the fast stuff and it just doesn’t work,” Rajala said. “Our goal is to make sure that we have ball control on offense, and hopefully that will work this year.”
The Eagles lost two seniors from last year’s team: Cole Klinzing and Danny Kallberg. Solon Springs will also be without one of its seniors this year, as Mac Ohm is recovering from a broken wrist he suffered during the football season.
“That really hurts because he’s a very hard worker,” Rajala said. “He played all summer and he was really excited to play this year. Hopefully we’ll get him back at the end of the year.”
Among the Eagles’ returning players, Phil Larson will start at point guard for the fourth straight year. He averaged 16.6 points per game last year to lead Solon Springs and was ranked first in the Indianhead Conference in 3-point shooting percentage (38.8 percent).
“That Larson kid is very good,” Gustafson said following the Tigers’ scrimmage with Solon Springs. “He can catch and shoot, he can score off the dribble. We knew he’d be the one we’d have to stop.”
All season, teams will likely be looking to stop Larson, but the Eagles have a deep roster of experienced players ready to step up.
Kyle Vandenberghe gives the Eagles some height inside, and Jacob Dahlberg has a nose for the ball on the offensive boards.
At the perimeter, Solon Springs has its pick of players to choose from. Larson and returning starter Cody Utyro both provided strong play at the arc last season, and Trey Scheldroup showed during Solon Springs’ scrimmage with Northwestern that he can be a reliable threat from the perimeter as well.
“We bought a shooting machine this year, and these guys have probably shot a thousand extra shots just in the past week,” Rajala said. “So we’re hoping to improve our outside shooting. I think we’ve got some nice post players and we’ve got to compliment that with our outside shots. That shooting machine has definitely been used, so it’s a good investment.”
Rajala said this is the year the Eagles are looking to get over the hump in conference play. They finished 11-12 overall and 9-9 in conference play last season.
“We need to finally get to that point. We’ve been close,” Rajala said. “We lost five or six games by three points or less last year.
“Our biggest theme this year is rebounding and good passing. If we can improve on both of those, then I think we’re going to be able to compete against the stronger teams in our conference this year. We definitely have the strength to do that.”
Rajala said Drummond and Washburn will again be near the top of the Indianhead Conference. He also expects Bayfield, the team that knocked Solon Springs out of the playoffs last year, to come back much improve and ready to challenge for the conference title.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Rajala said. “It’s going to be a very competitive conference and we’re hoping that we can go places that we’ve never been before.”
Solon Springs Eagles
00. Trenton Wester Sr. G
2. Mackenzie Ohm Sr. G/F
3. Trey Scheldroup Jr. G
5. Cody Utyro Sr. G
10. Kyle Vandenberghe Sr. C
14. Corey Utyro Sr. G
15. Daniel Gengenbach So. F
24. Philip Larson Sr. G
34. Jacob Dahlberg Jr. C
41. Tyler Long Jr. F
For the first time in 15 years, the Northwestern Tigers will not be coached by Dan Cowley.
Cowley called it quits last season with a 231-120 record as head coach of the Tigers, and now Gustafson looks to carry on with Northwestern’s success.
“It’s a new group of guys, new coach,” Gustafson said. “Coach Cowley had a lot of success, so I didn’t want to come in here and change everything. I think that would be a bad idea, so a lot of the stuff we’re doing is stuff that they did.”
Gustafson said fans can expect the same pressure defense Northwestern has used in the past and a very similar offense. The Tigers did best in their scrimmage with Solon Springs when they were able to move the game along and score baskets on the fly.
“The kids have played that way all along, and that’s how we will play,” Gustafson said. “We’ll try to press and create things, up-tempo, fast-break style.”
“I know that they’re capable of doing some really good things,” Rajala said. “They’ve got some good-sized players, they’ve got quick guards; once they get into their system I think they’re going to be just fine.”
Seniors Nolan Graff and Justin Alexson have the most experience of the returning players. Gabe Dinkel also played significant minutes last season but is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered during the football season.
“He’s coming along good and he should be back in a couple months. So he’s not going to miss the whole season,” Gustafson said.
Dylan Jardine, a junior, is the tallest player on this year’s team at 6-foot-6. He played for the varsity team at the end of last season and will be Northwestern’s primary threat down low this year.
“We’re pretty young,” Gustafson said. “We’ll have a couple sophomores playing, three juniors probably starting.”
In the Heart O’ North Conference, Northwestern will have to deal with teams hoping to make up for three years of dominance by the Tigers.
Last season, the Tigers were 20-6 overall and 11-3 on the conference. In the two years prior, Northwestern went 14-0 in the conference.
Ladysmith finally toppled the Tigers last season to take over the HON crown, but the Lumberjacks were the only conference team to beat Northwestern twice in the regular season. In the third meeting between the two teams — the Division 3 regional finals — the Tigers came away with a 62-58 victory.
The Lumberjacks face the Tigers for the first time this season at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9 at Maple. Other HON teams predicted to be in the top half of the standings are Bloomer and Barron.
“I’m kind of hoping that we’re under the radar,” Gustafson said. “There aren’t many returning varsity guys, but I expect us to compete and do well. Our goal is always to compete for championships, and I think hopefully by the time we start playing conference teams, that we can compete with anybody.”
11. Justin Alexson Sr. 6’3
13. Zak Anttila Sr. 6’0
15. Matt Hlina Jr. 6’2
21. Nolan Graff Sr. 6’0
23. Grant Pearson Jr. 6’2
25. Brayden Bartelt So. 5’11
31. Micah Olson Jr. 6’1
33. Gabe Dinkel Sr. 5’11
35. Wes Ogren Sr. 6’2
41. Trevor Paulus So. 6’3
43. Tanner Follis Jr. 6’3
53. Dylan Jardine Jr. 6’6
The Northwood Evergreens lost three key scorers from last year’s team, yet head coach Charlie Vig still has high hopes for this year.
Gone are Keanan Franco, Brian Albano and Brad Ross, but the Evergreens return a strong groups of juniors anxious to take over the reins.
Nick Murray, Gage Harwick and Austin Meyer, all juniors, are among the top players back for the Evergeens. Harwick and Meyer will provide Northwood with strength in the paint, while Murray will play at guard.
Northwood opened its season Tuesday with a 60-40 victory over Birchwood and will travel to Shell Lake for a game on Monday.
The Evergreen boys begin the season with five road games before hosting Clear Lake Dec. 20 in their home opener.
Also this year, Northwood will renew its longstanding rivalry with Solon Springs after failing to schedule a game between the two schools last year.
The Eagles come into the match with a two-game winning streak against the Evergreens. Solon Springs won the last match-up between the two teams 57-51 on Jan. 7, 2010. The year before, Solon Springs also won, 58-47.
The Evergreens play at Solon Springs at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 9.
10. Eric Olson Sr. G
11. Nick Murray Jr. G
12. Chris Olson Sr. G
20. Josh Downs So. G
22. Braxton Philips Jr. F
30. Austin Meyer Jr. F
44. Ben Burns Jr. G
50. Gage Harwick Jr. F
Last season, the Superior High School boys basketball team won a sectional title for the first time in 37 years. Joel Lindberg, Rob Kraft and Josh Kimmes made up the heart of that team and gave the Spartans their identity for the past two seasons.
This year, Superior will have to look elsewhere for its identity.
“Our identity, I think, is our style of play,” Kontny said. “Obviously when you lose eight seniors like we did last year, you lose a pretty big nucleus, but we’ve lost seven players before and played well and had good seasons.”
Senior Cody Hunt is the only returning player who started regularly last year. He will be back in the paint for Superior this year.
Colton Lorenz also played on the varsity squad last year and will start at guard this year. Fellow senior Ryan Kelleher is a newcomer to the team, but it will be his job to help spell Hunt in the post.
Juniors make up the rest of Superior’s team. Derek Kontny, Erick Tunell and Spencer Urban suited up for the varsity team last year and will be looked to as key players this year.
“They played a lot in the summer and they played a lot together,” Kontny said. “They’re very athletic, and we’ve got some good basketball players.
“I think it will be a learning curve the first few games, but these kids have won all the way through, as well. I think they were 19-1 as freshmen and last year they were 17-5 or 18-4. So they’re not used to losing and neither are we.”
The Spartans don’t have overwhelming height this year — the tallest player on the roster is 6-foot-3.
Instead, Superior is small and fast, and the players expect to outpace and outlast their opponents.
“We’re definitely run-and-gun,” Hunt said. “That’s how we win games is to run and make other teams tired. It seems to work, so we’ll stick to it.”
Kelleher said this year’s Spartan team will be much like teams of the past, only with different components. The players will need time to develop synergy, but once they come together as a group, fans will see a Superior team that looks very familiar.
Kontny said the Spartans will again use a trapping, man-to-man defense to try to rack up points off of turnovers.
Within the Lake Superior Conference, Duluth Denfeld is among the favored teams. Superior also has a challenging non-conference schedule this year, including games with Eastview (Minn.), Eau Claire North and Minneapolis Southwest.
“Our schedule’s hard, so any game you can see us play at home here, you’re going to want to see,” Kontny said.
3. Colton Lorenz Sr. G
5. Ben Erickson Jr. G
11. Jordan Hughes Jr. G
23. Derek Kontny Jr. G
31. Bryan Sanders Jr. G/F
33. Erick Tunell Jr. G
35. Spencer Urban Jr. F
41. Ryan Kelleher Sr. F/C
43. Anthony Valentine Jr. F
51. Cody Hunt Sr. F/C