No. 1-ranked Eagles know tough challenges are ahead

Boys basketball team returns 8 of top 9 players

Apple Valley’s Dennis Austin (foreground) and Robert Tobroxen go after a rebound during the Eagles’ 98-82 victory at St. Louis Park on Tuesday night. Photo by Rick Orndorf

If there’s a basketball team that can deal with everything that comes with being ranked No. 1, it might be Apple Valley’s boys.

For three years, Eagles players have seen college coaches, media types and curiosity seekers come to wherever they played to see guard Tyus Jones, ranked by ESPN as the nation’s No. 1 player in the class of 2014. They should be used to the buzz by now.

But casual fans might be surprised to discover that Apple Valley isn’t a one-man show. Jones is one of four returning starters, and this year the Eagles added a dimension – height – they haven’t had recently.

There are some challenges that come with Apple Valley’s status. One is a difficult schedule. Beginning with Saturday’s game against Park Center at the Breakdown Tip-Off Classic, the Eagles will play three ranked teams in 10 days. In early January, they’ll play a heated rivalry game against Eastview, then head to Target Center the following afternoon to face Robbinsdale Cooper at the Timberwolves Shootout.

Not only will the Eagles get every opponent’s best shot, but “we’ll get high-end teams’ best shot,” coach Zach Goring said.

Apple Valley was 23-6 last season and reached the Section 3 championship game. All six losses were to teams that reached the state tournament.

The teams that tied for the 2011-12 South Suburban Conference championship, Lakeville North and Eastview, suffered heavy losses to graduation, leaving Apple Valley as a solid favorite in the league.

Going to the state tournament also is on the players’ minds. Apple Valley reached the section final the last two years, losing each time.

Asked what the team needs to do to clear that hurdle, Jones said, “we need to be better on the defensive end. We need to do a better job of staying in front of people. In the past we thought we could just outscore teams, and we know now that’s not enough.”

Also returning to the starting lineup are senior guard Harry Sonie, senior guard Dustin Fronk and junior forward Dennis Austin. Sonie can pressure opponents with his quickness, Fronk is a good perimeter shooter and Austin is a strong rebounder. The four returning starters combined to average more than 60 points a game last season.

Jones, in his fourth season as the starting point guard, averaged 28.2 points in 2011-12. Last summer, he played for the gold medal-winning U.S. team in the world Under-17 tournament in Lithuania.

On Tuesday, he scored 33 as Apple Valley won its season opener 98-82 at St. Louis Park. Austin and Fronk had 14 points each, while senior Chris Laymon and ninth-grader Brock Bertram had 10 apiece.

Also back are several players who were key reserves for the Eagles last year, including Laymon, junior forward Robert Tobroxen, senior forward Matt Christiansen and senior forward James Horton.

Tobroxen is in his third year with the varsity. “I think he’s ready to take the next step and be a big-time contributor,” Goring said.

Bertram, a 6-foot-10 center, appears ready to contribute immediately, as indicated by his performance in the opener at St. Louis Park.

“We’re deeper than last year,” Jones said. “And we have a tall freshman, Brock Bertram, who gives us a different look.”

The Eagles were a little undersized last year, and Goring said they occasionally were pushed around under the boards. With all the returning players a year older and Laymon, Tobroxen and Bertram all 6-5 or taller, that might not be as much of a problem this season.

Goring summarized why the Eagles are excited to start this season.

“We’ve got eight or our top nine players back, plus a 6-10 freshman,” he said. “Our group of seniors won a state championship as eighth-graders. We have four kids – Chris Laymon, Tyus, Dustin and Harry – who shot over 40 percent from three last year.

“There are a lot of tough games ahead of us, but we’re really looking forward to the season.”

Apple Valley will play seventh-ranked Park Center at the Breakdown Tip-Off Classic at 6:45 p.m. Saturday at Minnetonka High School, then return to Minnetonka on Dec. 11 to play the ninth-ranked Skippers.