by Andy Rogers
Few teams had less varsity experienced basketball players coming into the season than the Burnsville boys.
Coach Matthew Eppen knew it would be a work in progress. While a 0-16 record halfway through the season can be a little discouraging, no one is giving up.
“Our team has made tremendous improvements throughout the season,” Eppen said. “The kids have come to practice each day with the right attitude and a willingness to get better. Consequently the motivation is still high and we continue to improve.”
While the coaches expected a few growing pains, they didn’t expect as many physical pains. Only a handful of players have played in every game.
“Our player rotations have changed drastically due to injury,” Eppen said. “We have had four players miss considerable time due to injury.”
There hasn’t been a shortage of players who want the chance. More than 15 players have seen time on the court this season.
“Both upperclassmen and underclassmen have taken advantage of their opportunity,” Eppen said.
Zach Smith has emerged as a go-to scorer with 45 points in the last three games, and AJ Coleman scored a season-high 13 points in the 70-56 loss to Lakeville South on Tuesday.
The focus is to earn that first victory.
The team has played everyone in the South Suburban Conference with one more shot at each. The closest game was a three-point loss to Shakopee on Jan. 14. The Blaze also have lost to Eagan by eight points and Bloomington Jefferson by 10.
“The second round of the conference season will hopefully give us a chance to continue to improve on the things we have been working on and also try some new things that will give us an advantage this season but also in the future,” Eppen said.
When the Irish began the South Suburban Conference portion of the schedule in early January, they had a 6-2 record and a Granite City Classic trophy.
January wasn’t kind to that positive record. After an 81-58 loss to Apple Valley on Tuesday night the Irish fell below .500 for the first time since Dec. 8.
“This obviously is a very tough conference and we have learned a lot about ourselves the first time through,” coach Brian Schnettler said. “You can’t take a night off and you need to play with energy every night.”
The Irish have a veteran squad – seven seniors strong who have been through this before.
“We will be a better team the second time through the conference,” Schnettler said. “We need to improve the consistency of our shooting a bit to compete with the top teams in our conference. Our goal has always been to be at our best in March and our guys are working hard to achieve that.”
One of those seniors, leading scorer Matt Nelson, will continue his basketball experience at Minnesota State University-Moorhead next fall and has been a jack-of-all-trades for the Irish.
“I am happy to see some of the work he has put in pay off for him,” Schnettler said. “Matt can score both inside and out, but he also leads us in rebounds, blocks, steals, free throws attempted, and minutes played.”
Brandon Forcier, Garrett Goetz, Cole Northwick, Tyler Liermann and Charlie Broback have been instrumental in keeping the team competitive. Northwick led the team with 20 points in the loss to Apple Valley.
Other than Eastview, Lakeville North and Apple Valley, the Wildcats are the only other team in the conference with a winning record.
Eagan won four-straight conference games in an 11-day stretch beating Rosemount, Lakeville South and Bloomington Kennedy.
Eagan has averaged more than 60 points per game by improving its ball security.
“I think the biggest key to those wins was eliminating the turnovers,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “We still need to improve in that area, but our recent success shows the kids what they are capable of doing if they take care of the ball and get good shots with each possession.”
Shea Mandli (29 points against Kennedy) and Nick Sabatke (23) are leading the team in scoring, both averaging in the teens.
“They have been pretty consistent all season and are playing at the level we expected they would play from the start of the season,” Sullivan said.
That’s helped the offense take better shots with contributions from Drew Bauer, Eric Woodcock, Jackson Prestrud, Isaiah Pearson and Mitch Knutson.
The Wildcats have a rematch against Eastview – one of the conference teams to defeat Eagan – Friday night on the road.
After starting the season 12-2, the Eagles were off to their best start since last qualifying for state in 2007.
A trip to Lakeville North in late January was a setback. After leading 32-24 at halftime, the Eagles lost by 14.
Three days later, the team beat a five-win Bloomington Jefferson team 63-59 and on Tuesday night outscored Rosemount 81-58.
The highest scoring team in the conference took a hit when it lost Harry Sonie to injury, but sophomore Tyus Jones has taken an even larger role as the go-to scorer averaging almost 30 points per game.
Dustin Fronk, who led the team with 22 points against Rosemount, and Mitch Heschel with 17 points have helped out.
With two conference losses, the Eagles have some work to do if they want to improve their standings.
First task comes on Friday against Prior Lake, which marks the beginning of the second round of conference play. The Eagles defeated Prior Lake 78-70 on Jan. 3.
The top-ranked team in Minnesota is showing no signs of letting up with comfortable consecutive victories against Lakeville South, Bloomington Kennedy and Bloomington Jefferson.
Joey King has averaged 30 points per game during the stretch.
The two teams that gave Eastview the toughest tests will pay a visit soon. Lakeville North comes to town on Feb. 10 and Apple Valley on Feb. 14.
Andy Rogers is at [email protected]