PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Soaring to new heightsFor each milestone the Solon Springs boys basketball team has reached, there has been a 1,000-point career scorer leading the team. This year Phil Larson entered the ranks of the 1,000-point elite.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
For each milestone the Solon Springs boys basketball team has reached, there has been a 1,000-point career scorer leading the team.
In 2004, Kenny Smith reached the 1,000-point plateau and helped the Eagles to their highest win total in school history, 17-5.
Two years later, Zach Gilbert also crossed the 1,000-point barrier, and Solon Springs made its first ever trip to the WIAA regional finals.
This year Phil Larson entered the ranks of the 1,000-point elite. With Larson at the helm, the Eagles put together their best season ever — finishing 19-6 overall — and advanced to the regional finals for just the second time in school history.
“Philip is unbelievable,” said Dale Rajala, Solon Springs boys basketball head coach. “He has definitely brought the team up to his level.”
Larson had a stellar year for the Eagles, averaging 21.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — both leading averages for the team. The senior guard also had 73 steals and 23 blocks on the year.
Among Indianhead Conference players, Larson was third overall in scoring and third in free throw shooting percentage with 74 percent. He recently was named a first team selection to the Indianhead All-Conference team for the third straight year; and counting his honorable mention nod as a freshman, Larson has received all-conference honors every year he has played for the Eagles.
“Philip not only excels in sports but also as a student,” Rajala said. “He never misses school and is one of the highest achieving students in our school. He is one of those rare exceptional student-athletes that comes around every 10 years that just sets the example for everyone else. He will be missed.”
Larson will also goes down in local lore as one of the best basketball players ever to come out of Solon Springs.
The senior amassed 482 total points this year and 1,367 over his four years playing varsity basketball for the Eagles.
“I believe he is the all-time leading scorer in school history,” Rajala said. “Nobody has come close to that total in the last 30 years.”
The only player who could challenge Larson’s scoring record is Willie West, who graduated in the 1970s. West, fittingly, is Larson’s great uncle.
“He said they didn’t keep track when he was in high school, so he thought he was over 1,000 but he wasn’t sure,” Larson said.
Larson has been playing basketball since his Rookie Basketball Association days in first grade.
He began playing varsity basketball for the Solon Springs Eagles in the 2008-09 season and was by far the youngest player on the team. Despite his youth, Larson had the respect of his older teammates, who singled him out as the “freshman that’s going to be pretty good.”
“Philip was always the first player in the gym and the last one to leave,” Rajala said. “He would shoot at least 200 extra shots a night after everyone else went home.”
But Larson wasn’t alone in his dedication to the sport. Through all the tournaments and practices, Larson’s parents faithfully shuttled him back and forth from gym to gym and supported him at every game.
“They come to every home game, every away game, they travel to all my tournaments with me — everything I do they support me,” Larson said. “Parents are a big part of their kids’ success because they allow kids to do what they can. I’d have to give a lot of credit to my parents for the time they gave.”
This season was a highlight for Larson, with Solon Springs’ victory over Washburn — the first in four years for Larson — and the Eagles’ run in the playoffs.
“We had a great group of guys,” Larson said. “Everybody worked hard, which I think was a big part of it. We had a lot of talent and size as well, so we had all the parts to be a really good team this year.”
The Eagles finished second in the western half of the Indianhead Conference, and their 19 wins this season are the most ever for a boys basketball team from Solon Springs. The Eagles’ win total this year surpasses the record set in 2004, when Smith played for Solon Springs.
“I looked up to Zach Gilbert and Kenny Smith,” Larson said. “Those were the two biggest players that I can remember I always wanted to be.
“I was always taller as a younger kid, so I wanted to be No. 45 like Kenny, growing up. But then I ended up being a guard, so I couldn’t be 45.”
Now a senior, Larson is the player children approach with admiration in their eyes.
“He certainly put our program on the map and has made a major impact on our kids in the youth programs,” Rajala said. “The kids, including my own son, want to be Philip Larson when they get into high school.”
Larson said he would like to continue playing basketball, but will have to do so as a walk-on at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“I’m in the Air National Guard in Duluth, and I’m going to go through basic training this summer,” Larson said. “So I’m going to miss the first semester of college, and then I’ll start second semester.
“I want to extend my career playing basketball because I love the sport, so it would be fun to at least try to walk on at UMD.”