It was the night of Monday, Dec. 14, and while the celebration of the First Noel was still more than a week away, Christmas came early for the Superior boys basketball team when the school board decided to allow teams to start playing again.

“We were sending emails, writing letters, ‘We want to play, we want to play,’ all this kind of stuff,” Spartans coach Jake Smith said. “There was a lot of positive support from so many people — community members, adults, students, coaches, parents — and I think all our guys were tuning in virtually to that meeting. My phone just blew up right away that night. I got texts, ‘Coach, we get to play, we get to play!’ They were just thrilled to hear it.”

Just a week later, the Spartans were practicing, and Friday, Jan. 8, they will host Ashland at 7:15 p.m. in their season opener.

“We can’t wait,” Smith said. “These guys have had such a great couple weeks of practice since we started up. Every day just keeps getting a little better and better and better. They’re fired up. We’re fired up. We can’t wait to play.”

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Superior’s first game was supposed to be right after Thanksgiving, but that wasn’t going to happen due to restrictions in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. Smith said the break between seasons felt like forever this year.

“I wasn’t sure if we were going to get to have any type of season at all. For a while it wasn’t looking so good, but some decisions were made, we all acted very quickly. Now we get to be together and play, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

Joey Barker, who led the team at 19.4 points per game last year and is now playing at Wisconsin-Superior, is the only player the Spartans lost from last year’s 11-12 season.

Superior head boys basketball coach Jake Smith holds an iPad up to let some of his assistants view tryouts since they couldn’t make practice Tuesday, Dec. 22. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Superior head boys basketball coach Jake Smith holds an iPad up to let some of his assistants view tryouts since they couldn’t make practice Tuesday, Dec. 22. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Smith expects this year’s team to be balanced.

Kaden Kimmes (13.5 ppg) and Draden Jensen (12.4 ppg), two of six seniors on the squad, return after earning all-conference honors.

Lars Olson, Ben Hunter, Isaac Domitrovich and Johnny Rhodes are the other seniors, while Evan Bennett, Robert Olson and Shane Leask are part of a strong junior class.

“Like I told the guys today (Wednesday, Jan. 6) at practice about that, and this reminds me of one of my earlier years, where you never knew who was going to be the high scorer,” Smith said. “We’ve got six or seven guys who can all reach double figures in scoring. We’ll have a lot of guys chipping in for us, but you just never know who it’s going to be on that night.”

Smith, 31, is in his eighth year as Superior’s head coach. After graduating from Rhinelander, he went on to become the all-time leading men’s basketball scorer at UWS, graduating in 2011. He teaches ninth-grade math at Superior High School.

Smith said he couldn’t imagine not playing his senior year, but as we all know, 2020 was anything but ordinary.

“Oh, gosh no,” he said. “But this is just a really special group of guys, really well coached from their youth days. They attended our youth camps, and every year, you could just see them getting better. Seeing how talented they were, we thought, ‘Man, just wait until their junior and senior years.'

"It was almost heartbreaking to know, this is the year we’ve been waiting for, and we might not even get anything with them. As a player, as a senior, I couldn’t imagine not getting to play. It would be heartbreaking," he said.