There’s no question the Watertown-Mayer boys’ basketball team lost quite a bit from last year’s conference and section championship team.
The Royals, who went undefeated in Minnesota River Conference play last season and finished 28-3 overall, lost roughly 85 percent of their scoring and 85 percent of their rebounding to graduation. The Royals lost 10 seniors overall, including three who earned first-team all-conference honors, and another who received honorable mention. Included in that group was Nate Kratch, one of the school’s all-time greats.
While Royals’ coach Bob Hennen acknowledges his team lost a great deal of talent, he said this year’s team may feature a deceptive level of returning talent as well.
“We’re looking forward to having a lot of success this year,” Hennen said. “Last year we had some guys that might not have played a lot, but that’s only because we were one of the best teams in the state. I think we’re bringing back a lot more than people realize.”
In Kratch, the Royals lost a player who finished with more than 1,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 500 blocks. He averaged 19 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks and three assists per game last year. Joining him on the all-conference first team — and on the list of departed seniors, as well — were Alex Runck (14 points, 6 assists) and Trevor Weinmann (12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists). Honorable-mention all-conference forward Dustin Thomas (4.9 points, 4.4 rebounds) also was lost to graduation, along with key players like Matt Schreder and Josh Thompson.
But Hennen said that while replacing their talent and would be tough, replacing their experience is tougher. While Hennen believes he has plenty of talent in this year’s bunch, the fact remains that there is very little varsity-level experience.
“The bigger part of the challenge is getting everybody ready for a varsity game, and to really come together as a team,” Hennen said. “It’s going to take us a little time to get us playing at the varsity level as a team.”
Leading a small group of experienced returnees for the Royals are senior guard Jacob Wandersee and junior forward Luke Sandquist. Wandersee, a strong shooter who averaged 6.7 points per game and shot 41 percent from 3-point range last year, will likely be looked to for increased scoring. Sandquist, a post player overshadowed by Kratch’s dominance last year, is a player that Hennen believes is ready for a breakout year.
More than anything, though, the leadership of those two players will be crucial.
“They have to be really steady for us, especially right away,” Hennen said. “Those are the two kids that got the most time last year. Early in the season, I think it’s really important that they are our leaders.”
Senior Caleb Fails also returns to the Royals this year after getting a decent amount of experience last year. Other players that Hennen expects to compete for minutes at the varsity level include Mark Sandquist, Brandon Kuntz, Hunter Hulley, Kurt Klitzke, Jacob Grotbo, Dan Dressel and Jesse Bushman. Also in the mix this year will be foreign exchange student Barna Berenyi, whom Hennen described as a good player that could really help the team.
Hennen said the biggest challenges would be determining which players are most ready to step up, and getting them to mesh as a team.
“I think we can surround the court with some pretty good shooters, and I’m really expecting good things from Luke Sandquist in the post,” Hennen said. “I think he’ll be a very good player this year. We have a lot of size, which will really help us. We’re really versatile and have a lot of kids that can play multiple spots, so I think we’ll be able to match up against teams really well. But we have to find how all these different groups interact with each other.”
Hennen said that one of the biggest question marks surrounding the team entering this season is defense. Last year, the team held opponents to about 43 points per game, but the Royals struggled with that part of their game in a recent jamboree of exhibition games.
“One of the biggest concerns is on defense, I think, because I believe we have kids that score,” Hennen said. “I think (defense) is the biggest question. If we can get that corrected, I think we’ll be pretty good. But that’s definitely what will make or break us this year.”
Hennen said teams like Mayer Lutheran, Sibley East and Belle Plaine return the most from last year among the Minnesota River Conference teams, but said he doesn’t expect any one team to dominate the conference, like the Royals did last year, when they won the league title by four games.
Hennen also said that while his team is a relative unknown this season, he is stressing to his team that its sights shouldn’t be set any lower than they have been in the past.
“Like I told the guys, we’re still the defending conference champions, the defending section champions, and the two-time defending sub-section champions,” Hennen said. “I don’t want us to ever feel like we shouldn’t set our goals that high. It might take us awhile to get to where we want to get to with everybody being so new, but I want these guys — and I think they are — to set their sights really high. There’s a lot of potential there, and we have a chance to do some great things. We should be able to compete in our conference and in our subsection, and hopefully we get a chance to play for that section title again.”
The Royals’ first regular season test will be Friday, Nov. 30, at Dassel-Cokato at 7:30 p.m.
The Royals will open the home portion of their schedule on Tuesday, Dec. 4, when they host Delano at 7:30 p.m.