When you have a player such as Cole Nicholson, opposing teams take notice. They game plan for. They double team. They change defensive looks.
What it does is open up opportunities for other teammates.
That was the story for the 2018-19 Chaska basketball season. Surrounding cast members stepping up, leading the Hawks to a 21-win season and a Metro West Conference title.
With Nicholson now at Northern Colorado University, and fellow classmate Conner Krenos playing at Hamline University in St. Paul, team basketball will be key to Chaska remaining as conference and section contenders.
"We are very excited to get this season started. We have had a unique start with the football team advancing to the state title game, so we are missing some of our players, but we are looking forward to other players stepping up," Chaska head coach Dana Kallman said.
Six players with varsity experience from last year return including Minnesota-Duluth commit Zach Lea, a two-year starter at guard. Lea averaged double digits in points as a junior.
Senior Ben Kallman (3.2 points per game), juniors Spencer Goetz (6.5 ppg), Luke Strazzanti (5.8 ppg) and Jack Frick (6.4 ppg), and sophomore Brady Nicholson also return to the rotation.
Goetz and Frick were set to practice for the first time Monday after playing on the state football championship team.
"We also have some other players who had great off seasons and are looking forward to contributing," the coach said.
The goals remain the same year in and year out in the Chaska program. With a number of Metro West Conference programs also experiencing deep hits in graduation, most notably Robbinsdale Cooper and St. Louis Park, the Hawks are likely the favorites once again.
Kallman said repeating as champs is definitely a goal.
Section 2-4A, which he described as the "toughest section in the state," boasts a stacked Eden Prairie squad, the defending champions, as well as Marquette commit Dawson Garcia at Prior Lake, Minnesota-Duluth commit Charlie Katona at Shakopee, and Abilene Christian commit Cameron Steele at Minnetonka.
Alone in December, Chaska's non-conference schedule includes Wisconsin commit Steven Crowl and loaded Eastview, Burnsville, Lakeville North, and Wayzata, all on the road, as well as Edina and Shakopee in a holiday tournament at Eden Prairie High School.
Eden Prairie and Minnetonka also are on the schedule in the first week of January, while Prior Lake comes late in January.
The Hawks open the season on Tuesday, Dec. 3 at home against Minneapolis Washburn.
"The month of December will prepare us to play some excellent basketball in January, February and March," Kallman said.
A 16-win season, a third-place finish in the Metro West Conference, was a big step forward for a Chanhassen program coming off three losing seasons.
The Storm hope to continue the path forward, returning two key rotational players as well as a host of players that gained valuable experience together on the JV squad.
"This group works well together and knows that in order to be successful we need to play this game as a team. We achieve more when we create for each other," Chanhassen coach Nate Pelowski, now in his 11th season, said.
Last year's JV squad allowed the second-lowest points per game average in program history; the best mark since 2012. Pelowski believes this year's group of players will be a "tough team to score on."
Senior Luke Gitzen, on varsity since ninth grade, gives Chanhassen a double-digit returning scorer. An excellent outside shooter that has the ability to slash and get to the hoop. "We need him to be an outstanding leader with only two guys back from last year’s rotation," Pelowski said.
Fellow senior captain, Vince Manuel, was an unsung player in 2018-19, doing the little things to always help his team. He scored 4.2 points per game, a number that figures to increase.
"Vince is a solid defender, excellent rebounder and great at finishing at the basket," the coach said.
Seniors Spencer Dieken and Sawyer Smith will see increased roles as well. The success of the Storm, though, will likely come down to how the junior class elevates themselves from JV to varsity.
Ben Giles, Adam Strobel, Austin Boll, and Mike Shea all played important roles on last season's JV team.
"This group worked extremely hard this summer as we learned to play with each other. Extremely similar to how two summers ago went and we had a very successful year last year. How well this group can work together will determine how well we do," Pelowski said.
Chanhassen opens the season on Tuesday, Dec. 3 at Waconia at 7 p.m.
Other December includes home games against Farmington (Dec. 6), Edina (Dec. 7), New Prague (Dec. 10), and Shakopee (Dec. 20). Chanhassen will also play in the Southside Showcase at Minneapolis South High School Dec. 14 versus Cambridge-Isanti.
Bryce Tesdahl has yet to coach a game at Minnetonka High School, yet it feels like he's as entrenched in Skipper basketball, from the youth level up, as anyone.
Tesdahl, who led New Prague for two years before coaching East Ridge in 2017-18 and 2018-19, believes the best part about being a coach is the opportunity "to make an impact and improve student athletes on and off the court."
Tesdahl, who replaces Ryan Freeberg as the Skippers' leader, has a career record of 94-23, including a fourth-place state finish with East Ridge last March. He has won 20-plus games in all four seasons.
Minnetonka is coming off a 13-14 record in 2018-19.
Back are senior starters Cameron Steele and Riley O’Connor.Steele recently signed a National Letter of Intent to play at Division I Abilene Christian University in Texas.
Steele scored at a clip of 20 points a game last season, while O'Connor chipped in seven points per contest.
"Cameron is a very skilled basketball player. He will have to produce big numbers on both ends of the floor for us to be successful every night. Cam is a great leader and one of the best offensive players in the state," Tesdahl said.
"Riley had a great offseason heading into his senior season. Riley can handle the ball, score the ball, and defend the other team’s best player. He will be a great leader on both ends of the floor for us this season," Tesdahl added.
Seniors Brock Banken and JT Gaffney, and sophomore Cohen Kellogg also have limited varsity experience.
"We’re in the process of establishing a winning culture and program at Minnetonka. This will take patience and time as the Lake Conference and Section 2AAAA are the best in the state. We have a great group of young men that are willing to work towards changing the expectation and result of Minnetonka Boys Basketball. We will rely heavily on our senior class to produce and supplement the lineup with promising underclassmen. We look forward to competing at the highest level of Minnesota High School Basketball," Tesdahl said.
Tesdahl said a first year in a new program is always an exciting time. Though changing the culture from top to bottom does take a lot of effort and time. It's why Tesdahl has been making the rounds through the youth program, instilling those players an Anchors Up mentality.
"I believe we can take a step forward in moving our basketball program in that direction this season. We have a great group of seniors to lead by example on and off the court. Buying into the process leads to progress and together we will strive and work towards progress within the daily process," he said.
Minnetonka opens at Prior Lake at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 5.
Winning 10 games in the inaugural season in the Minnesota River Conference in 2018-19, Southwest Christian brought out an exciting brand of basketball that extends into this winter.
The Stars, though, did graduate six players that averaged more than 50 points per game, so new leaders will emerge.
"We are very excited about our team this coming year. We have a team of athletes who love playing together and committed to off-season work in the weight room and on skill development," Southwest Christian head coach Kit Avery said.
The Stars are led by senior captains Nate Chant and Nick Schneibel, a young team that will have a solid mix of juniors and sophomores who were able to get quality repetitions at the varsity and junior varsity level last season.
"A lot of our success year after year stems from the success and commitment of our younger level teams and coaches," Avery said.
Junior Tyson Sandness, the team's top returning scorer (7.1 points per game), will step into a leadership role as well as an increased scoring role for Southwest Christian.
"He has really developed his game and his body over the past year. His strength has always been his ability to shoot the ball at a high level and he has now added an extra dimension being able to penetrate and score off the dribble," Avery said.
Southwest Christian will also look to Nick Morland at point guard following a year of maturity and growth behind the Stars' leading point scorer last season in Max Steensland.
"He is an extremely hard worker and lived in the gym this summer honing in his jump shot and playmaking ability. He is a tough, hard nosed defender and has grown in his ability to lead and orchestrate a team," Avery said.
Other players to watch are key defenders Isaac Harrison and Lucas Anderson, while Brayden Zimmerman and Tyren Harris are ready to make the move to varsity after a year of seasoning under head JV coach Jarryd Haag.
"Our staff is extremely excited about this group of young men. They are unselfish, put forth their best effort and are committed to each other. As a team we strive to play this season with humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness while continuing to build our program together," the head coach said.
Southwest Christian opens the season on Thursday, Dec. 5, at home against Eagle Ridge Academy.
HOLY FAMILY CATHOLIC
Going nine players deep all last season, Holy Family Catholic won 15 games in the regular season with depth.
That's a mantra Fire head coach Matt Thuli will continue to employ in 2019-20.
"We will have depth this year. Several players are similar in size and skill. We should be able to use their length to defend," he said.
Six rotational players graduated, leaving plenty of court time to fill. Seniors Nick Hendler (15.1 points per game), Seth Thompson (4.9 ppg) and Sam McNulty (1.8 ppg) return for the Fire.
"Offensively we need to find a balance in our scoring and maximize our trips to the offensive side of the floor. We will look different on that end of the floor. More execution and less reliant on dribbling and shooting. For us to be successful we need a team first mentality; sharing the ball the offense and being fundamentally sound," Thuli said.
Hendler has been on varsity since his freshman season. "He will bring scoring to our team as well as intensity and defense. We will rely on his experience and leadership," the coach said.
Thompson is a big strong post for the Fire that moves well in his football body.
"He will give us a presence in the paint and we will need scoring and rebounding from him. Seth has had a very good football career and we will look for his leadership and guidance to teach our younger players how to approach practice," Thuli said.
More than any recent year, the time between games is important for growth and competition.
"Practices should be competitive and intense with players battling for playing time," Thuli said.
Holy Family Catholic continues to schedule top programs from all levels in Mayer Lutheran in 1A, Brooklyn Center, Watertown-Mayer and Breck School in 2A, conference opponents Delano, Waconia and Orono in 3A, and Chanhassen and Edina in 4A.
"I am excited that we have Chanhassen on the schedule this year. I believe that game will be an enjoyable one for the players and the community. I think that will be one of the non-conference games that will draw a big crowd, which is always an enjoyable thing for the players," Thuli said. "We once again will play Edina, which is good test, as is the Wright County."