Expectations are as high this season as they have been in recent memory for the Brainerd Warriors.
There are at least five reasons for that optimism:
• Five of the top seven players return from last year’s team that recorded Brainerd’s first postseason win since 2001 and its most wins (14) since 2006-07. Seeded eighth in last year’s Section 8-4A tournament, the Warriors startled top-seeded Buffalo 69-67 in two overtimes in the section quarterfinals before losing to Moorhead in the semifinals.
• The top two rebounders are back.
• The leaders in blocks and steals return.
• The No. 2 player in assists returns.
“We’re not thinking we’re better than we are because we haven’t done anything,” Warriors second-year head coach Scott Stanfield said, “but let’s be honest. We haven’t been where we’ve wanted to be in the past. We took some small steps last year that got our program going in the right direction.
“The excitement is really high in the community. Everyone I run into is excited about the season. I’m excited about our season. The kids are. As long as we stay humble, take it a game at a time, and do our stuff, we’ll be hard to beat.”
Last season’s top scorer, guard Jack Sauer, heads the list of returnees. The All-Central Lakes Conference player averaged 15.2 points and 2.8 rebounds and led the team in steals (54) and free throw shooting (75.8 percent).
“Jack’s just all-around a really good high school basketball player,” Stanfield said. “When people see him this year, they’re going to go, ‘Wow! Who’s that kid?’ He’s added strength and muscle, and worked so hard to do that. He knew he had to get stronger because he’s going to be chased around a lot.”
Senior post Marcus Comstock was the team’s leading rebounder (5.2) and ranked second in assists (2.0). He also contributed 9.4 points a game, shooting 53 percent from the floor, 72.7 percent at the foul line.
“Marcus is non-stop energy,” Stanfield said. “He’s improved his shot from 12-15 feet. He’s a great offensive rebounder. He reads the ball coming off the basket about as well anybody I’ve coached.”
Senior 6-5 post Jacob Blong led the team in blocks (14) and averaged 7.0 points and 4.1 rebounds. He was limited to 14 games, battling mononucleosis early in the season before breaking a kneecap in the holiday tournament at Owatonna.
“Without him in the lineup, we started adjusting and playing pretty well, and rattled off some wins,” Stanfield said. “When Jacob came back, we had to adjust again and get him back into the swing of things. That kind of slowed us down a little bit, but without him late in the year we don’t go to Buffalo and beat Buffalo in the section.”
Senior 6-4 post Jagar Hanson averaged 6.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and one assist and shot 51 percent from the field.
“When he bumps you, you know you’ve been bumped,” Stanfield said.
“When Jacob went out last year, Jagar had to step up, and he did,” Stanfield added. “He had some fantastic games.”
Tony Sauer, Jack’s twin brother, contributed 4.8 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists. He’s recovering from minor knee surgery that Stanfield anticipates may sideline him for several days.
“Tony’s an intelligent kid, a tireless worker,” Stanfield said. “He just loves the game. (The Sauers) complement each other very well. When people watch games, they’re going to see that they have a certain connection and they look for each other.”
Ian Haug averaged 4 points and 1.1 rebounds off the bench. He shot 50 percent from the field, including 40 percent from 3-point.
“Ian has been the biggest surprise so far,” Stanfield said. “It’s because his defensive effort isn’t even close to what it was last year, he’s improved so much. He’s not thinking about things as much on defense. He’s learned our rotations. His on-ball defense has been really good.”
Chris Bowman averaged 3.9 points and 1.8 rebounds.
“He can play multiple positions,” Stanfield said. “We’re going to look at him at the point now and then. He’s improved his strength, his speed and is probably our hardest worker in practice and games.
“He’ll end up probably guarding the other team’s best player.”
Stanfield also expects seniors Yannick Cornelissen (a foreign student from Belgium), Taylor Huber, Tate Geraets and Connor Bowman (Chris’ brother) to be contributors.
Seniors: Jacob Blong, Chris Bowman, Connor Bowman, Marcus Comstock, Yannick Cornelissen, Tate Geraets, Jagar Hanson, Ian Haug, Ethan Horn, Seth Kreutzfeldt, Brandon Ramsdell, Jack Sauer, Tony Sauer, Taylor Huber
Juniors: Logan Davis, Christian Einarson, Conor Gessell, Clark Hickman, D.J. Kraemer, Logan McElfresh, Grant Reuer, Taylor Rushmeyer, Nick Schwen, Geoff Sheflo, Isaiah Smith, Jamie Stall, Jake Toft
MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bertsballpark.