In a season of ups and downs and a year with plenty of pitfalls, Superior boys basketball coach Jake Smith has a pretty simple message for the Spartans going into their playoff opener.
“Absolutely,” Smith said. “Playoff time is fun.”
Smith and Co. plan on having some fun when fifth-seeded Superior (7-8) plays at fourth-seeded Menomonie (10-10) in their Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 1 playoff opener at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16. The teams met Jan. 30 in Superior, with Menomonie winning 50-44 in overtime.
The winner advances to play at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, at River Falls (17-2), Sectional 1’s top seed.
“I think we have the ability to make a little run here,” Smith said. “I think it’s been probably two or three years in a row where we’ve been eliminated in the first round, so it’d be pretty neat to win that one on Tuesday and keep going from there.”
Smith said one of the Spartans’ strengths is their balance.
Guard/forward Kaden Kimmes might lead the team in scoring with 11.4 points per game, but next it’s guard Draden Jensen at 9.4 ppg. And in an 80-50 win Friday, Feb. 12, at Duluth Denfeld, that person was guard Johnny Rhodes, who had a career-high 21 points (6.6 ppg). In all, seven Spartans are averaging at least 5 ppg.
“You just never know who it will be,” Smith said. “Kaden and Draden have both scored in the 20s, and I feel like we have a couple other guys who could hit that mark. I feel like any one of our guys could have success putting the ball in the hoop on any given night, and that’s a good thing. Teams can’t focus on one or two guys because we’ve got a lot of guys who can score, and hopefully that will help us here this week.”
Kimmes, Jensen and Rhodes are three of the Spartans’ six seniors.
With a veteran group like that there is plenty of familiarity.
“We’ve played together for a long time, so we’re pretty jelled and have good team chemistry,” Kimmes said. “Unselfishness is a big part of our team. You don’t win many games being selfish.”
Kimmes is a quarterback in football but didn’t get to have a fall season. He plans on playing both football and baseball in the spring, with football starting March 8. He is thinking about playing football in college.
Until then, he’d like to make a playoff run in basketball.
“That’s the goal,” Kimmes said. “We just need to play good defense. I’m very excited. We wish we could have had a full season, but we’re just grateful for what we got.”
That’s been a theme throughout the past year, no doubt.
Smith said the condensed season brought its share of challenges, with little time to finetune the basics in practice. It was more learning on the fly in games.
The Spartans wanted to get more games in, and they wanted to win more of them. They came into the season with high expectations and didn’t quite live up to them.
But whenever Smith found himself getting perhaps a little frustrated or overwhelmed, he had to remind himself this season has been anything but typical.
“We talked to the guys a lot about that,” Smith said. “It’s been a tough year, just with everything going on. It felt like you were trying to squeeze in so many games, where we were playing three games a week for the longest time.
“I had to keep reminding myself that we were essentially trying to cram three-and-a-half months of work into a month and half. We’ve had our ups and downs. It’s been kind of a roller coaster, but at the end of the day, we’re happy to be playing and we’re having fun. I think that’s the important message here this year. We get to compete and we get the opportunity, so just enjoy the competition and enjoy playing as much as you can.”