After losing 11 seniors to graduation last year, the Watertown-Mayer boys’ basketball team returns only three players with significant varsity experience this season.
One of them — all conference forward Luke Sandquist — won’t even be available until at least mid-December after breaking his pinky in the final football game of the season. But despite the team’s inexperience entering the 2013-14 season, head coach Bob Hennen thinks there’s lots of room for optimism.
The Royals featured a strong JV team last year, and although Hennen admits the varsity level is a whole new game, he feels his squad has the pieces in place to develop as the year goes along.
“I think we’ll be very deep this year -— probably the deepest team we’ve had in awhile,” Hennen said. “I think this team has a pretty high ceiling, but it’s obviously not going to be perfect from Day 1 by any means.”
The other players returning with significant varsity experience are forward Hunter Hulley and guard Kurt Klitzke. Hulley, who averaged 6.3 points per game last year, will be counted on heavily during the first six or seven games until Sandquist returns, both in the scoring column and on the glass, where his leaping ability should help quite a bit.
“Hunter kind of knows he’s going to be our go-to guy, and he’s been great so far,” Hennen said. “He really does have to step up because we’re losing our best scorer and our best rebounder, and Hunter is the other guy who kind of played a lot last year, and pretty consistently.”
While Klitzke didn’t play as many minutes or contribute as many points as Sandquist or Hulley, he did play an increasing role as the season went on, and averaged 5.6 points in 10 games. He’ll likely play an even bigger role in the team’s backcourt this year as a senior, where he’ll likely also be joined by senior Jesse Bushman and juniors Brett Johnson and Ryne Alger. Hennen hinted that the team may even look to freshmen Trae Berhow or Ben Theisen for some minutes in the backcourt this year.
The biggest challenge in the early going for the Royals will be making up for Sandquist’s absence in the frontcourt. Jack Nolan, Wyatt Pouliot, Zack Eliason and Gabe Crowder all need to step up, Hennen said.
“We have a lot of capable players; they’re just new,” Hennen said. “That’s going to be the biggest challenge. I feel we’re very deep this year, we’re very quick on the perimeter and we’re big. We we get healthy, we’ll be pretty good I think.”
Getting a healthy Sandquist on the floor as soon as possible will certainly be key for the Royals. He averaged 14.2 points and also added more than 10 rebounds and three blocks per game last year. Hennen said the team would likely need to rely more on perimeter play early on with Sandquist out.
“I think we’ll have to rely a little more on our jump shooting and running,” he said. “We probably won’t have as many set plays. Our big guys work really hard, but Luke is definitely the most polished of them. We don’t have that constant post presence, but we’re really looking to push the tempo all year anyway, and I think our other posts will be just fine.”
Hennen said the team would likely try to use its speed and quickness to its advantage this year, a style of play that should get a boost from what Hennen thinks will be a strong bench.
“We’ll be able to pressure the ball a lot, because our second five guys are not that much different than our top five this year, which is a big advantage,” he said. “Most of the time in high school, when you go to your bench, you’re just looking to hang on. I think with this group, we have a real chance to increase leads and not just hold on to leads.”
The Royals opened the season Friday night with a win at Rockford, and also played Tuesday at home against Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted. They’ll return to the court Saturday, Nov. 30, at Delano at 3 p.m., and again at home on Tuesday, Dec. 3, at 7:30 p.m. against Litchfield.
“It’s a good group of kids this year,” Hennen said. “They’ve worked really hard. I think we’ll be fun to watch. We’ll press and run a lot. Without Luke, it could be not as good of a start as we were hoping for, but it could turn out to be just as good. It all depends on how guys step up. Our goal is to win every game, but mostly we just want to keep getting better and better.”
For more on the Royals season-opening win over Rockford last Friday, turn to Page 12.
Contact Matt Bunke at email@example.com