Though a conference championship is probably a longshot and a trip to the state tournament may be unlikely, the players making up the Park boys basketball team are begging opponents to discount them this season. That will play right into their hands.
“One edge we have is that teams tend to overlook us,” Park senior guard Sully Brenke said. “They think it’s going to be a cakewalk for them. It’s our job to prove them wrong.”
After snapping a long conference losing streak last year, Park’s scrappy group of go-getters has momentum, talent and belief in themselves heading into the 2013-14 season.
“I think some kids, last year, would go into a game saying we were going to lose,” Brenke said. “I don’t think that’s a good attitude to have toward any game. I think we genuinely believe we can win and that’s going to help us be more competitive.”
A portion of the Wolfpack’s renewed spirit has been siphoned from the successes of the Park football team this past fall. Despite having just over 30 players in the program, Park beat Woodbury, White Bear Lake and Forest Lake this year and was competitive in every game it played. Park’s players, coaches and fans tasted victory - and they liked it.
Seven Park boys basketball varsity team members played football for the Wolfpack this year and there are roughly 20 football players in the high school hoops program in all.
“There’s a lot of momentum going for us, especially for the guys who were on the football team,” said Park senior Ryan Klika. “We know what it’s like to compete and to win. Anything less than that isn’t acceptable.”
J Schwartz, who is entering his fourth year as head coach of Park, said every time the football team won a game this fall, he told people he felt it was a good thing for Park boys basketball.
“I think it’s going to carry over,” Schwartz said. “The competitiveness stands out. We were blown out quite a bit last year. This year, we want to be in more games. They’re modest goals, but the guys understand where we are at, that we can achieve our goals and go even further.”
The Park boys basketball team’s motto this year is “one team, one dream.”
“With the amount of people we had on the football team and what we accomplished I think it set the tone that you can do anything if you set your mind to it if you have a group of dedicated people willing to work for one goal,” Brenke said.
Brenke said both Schwartz and Park football coach Darin Glazier have been trying to impart similar life lessons.
“I think they’re both trying to teach us that there’s going to be adversities and hard times, but the more work you put into those the better person you’re going to be – not only on the court or the field, but in life, too,” Brenke said. “They’re trying to make us great athletes, but also great people in the community as well.”
The Park boys basketball team finished 4-22 overall last season, beating Hastings in conference play. The Wolfpack returns every single player from last year’s roster. That continuity is a strength, Schwartz said.
“We had a group of guys who came into the season already knowing all of our stuff,” Schwartz said. “We have new stuff in this year that we didn’t have last year or the year before. We’re light years ahead of where we were last year. We are so far ahead to start the season compared to 365 days ago. That really, really helps.”
Park senior Patrick Morrissey has been playing varsity since his sophomore year. He sees the team having a much different outlook than in years past.
“Everyone knows what it feels like to get a conference win and we know we can do it, because we have the talent,” Morrissey said. “With everyone back, we can build on what we had last year. That’s been fun. This year we haven’t had to take a step back. Just forward.”
The basketball season is starting earlier this year than it has before. In recent years, the season has begun after Thanksgiving. However, a number of teams have already tipped off.
Park ran two-a-day practices for its first week. The Wolfpack held nine practices in five days to start the year and had 14 practices before it played its first game.
“They’re a great group of guys that have been working very hard,” Schwartz said. “They came every morning and every afternoon to work as hard as they could. They’re a very enjoyable group to be around.”
Schwartz said the Wolfpack should be deeper this year than in recent years.
“We started pushing the team concept right away,” he said. “Everyone has a role on this team, whether it’s on the court, on the bench or the scout team. Everybody has a role and the same goal.”
Schwartz said his starting five isn’t completely set and could be fluid throughout the year.
“We’ve had a lot of guys step up and take greater roles this year, whether it’s on the court or off the court or offense or defense,” Schwartz said. “That’s a great thing to have.”
Klika led the team in scoring last season at 8.5 points per game and will be called upon to help lead the offense again this season.
“We’ll rely on Ryan Klika a lot,” Schwartz said. “He’s got a lot of experience and was our leading scorer last year. The tough thing is, though, that teams know who Ryan Klika is now and they’re going to be gunning for him.”
Other top scorers returning are Brenke, at 6.9 points per game, junior Anthony Juba at 6.2 points per game, junior Aaron Gorres at 5.8 points per game and junior Connor Kvendru at 5.7 points per game. Other players to watch include juniors Mike Virnig, Jeb Melson and Kaleb Fischer and senior Jordan Pinnix. Tolu Ogunrinde, Brandon Alt and Michael Griffin could also be contributors as freshmen.
Klika, Juba, Melson, Brenke, Gorres, Alt and Griffin all played football for the Wolfpack this fall.
Klika said he already senses a different mood in the locker room.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “Two years ago you could say not everybody liked each other on the team. Now, we’re all friends. We have a few disputes, but we get over it. We’re a tight group.”
Despite the good vibes, things won’t be easy for the Wolfpack this winter.
In the Suburban East, Cretin-Derham Hall has been ranked as high as eighth in some publications, while East Ridge has been ranked ninth. Other contenders for conference supremacy include last year’s co-champions Roseville and Woodbury.
In Section 3AAAA, state champion Apple Valley and Duke recruit Tyus Jones will look to defend their title. Eastview, East Ridge and Cretin-Derham Hall are other tough section teams.
Schwartz said he’s excited for the season.
“It’s always fun to coach when you don’t have to worry about effort,” he said. “I haven’t had to worry about effort at all. They come, they listen, they’re focused and they’re just a great group to be around. That makes coaching a heckuva lot easier.”