School was out, but class was in session on Veteran's Day at Central Lakes College.
With the halls outside the CLC gymnasium dark and empty, head men's basketball coach Jim Russell drilled this year's installment of the Raiders on the finer points of a full-court press.
Pressure defense and fundamental basketball are keys for Russell, who enters his 10th season and is coming off his most successful campaign leading the Raiders to their first NJCAA Division III national tournament.
Defense and fundamentals are the elements Russell will preach, scream and repeat to his squadron because defense wins titles and defense may be the weakness of this year's team.
"Commitment," said Russell. "Not only commitment to themselves, but to the program. What is it that we represent? It's always been defense, but they just haven't bought in yet. It's early, but usually teams buy into defense first because it's aggressive and a quicker thing to learn. Offenses are harder to learn.
"I feel like this team thinks they can outscore anybody. So defense isn't quite yet a priority."
This year's roster is filled with scoring talent, led by 6-foot-6 forward C.J. Peeters and 6-6 post Dustin Monson.
Peeters averaged 12 points, five rebounds and two assists per game to earn All-North Division honors. Monson tallied nine points and five rebounds a game.
Also back is point guard Will Kornbaum and forward Ryan Peeters. Kornbaum averaged four points, two assists and two rebounds last season. Ryan Peeters averaged four points and three rebounds.
"We look at our first week of practice and we were running around with our heads cut off," said C.J. Peeters. "We are putting it on our shoulders to step up, start taking some leadership and keep people in line on and off the court, set examples for everyone, pass classes. It comes down to everything."
Sophomore guard Sutan Burris transferred from Fresno City Community College.
"He will help us a lot in the sense that he is an unbelievable athlete," Russell said of Burris. "He's quick. He can take the ball to the basket and play good defense, so we're very excited about him."
Other new faces include Caleb Nurnberger (5-11, guard), Quentin Wilford (6-0, guard), Scott Herold (6-0, guard), Erik Peeters (6-3, forward), Kyle Mickelson (5-11, guard), Ahmed Farah (6-5, forward), Illya Glover (6-5, forward), Brandon Stenger (6-5, forward) and Lalo Bellamy (6-7, forward)
"Caleb comes from Staples-Motley where they play fundamental ball," said Russell. "We call him the energizer. He can go and hopefully we're going to let him go.
"We also bring in Erik Peeters, who averaged 23 points a game last year at New York Mills. The other area kid that is really going to help us is Kyle Mickelson out of Perham. He came out, pretty much a walk-on, but he's been a big surprise. He understands the game well. He does the little things that we're always looking for.
"Brandon Stenger from Eden Valley-Watkins is fundamentally sound in the post and is the hardest worker we have. He's the guy you want to take to war with you."
The biggest surprise might be Herold, a Pierz graduate who missed a promising senior season with a knee injury. The freshman point guard transferred from St. John's University this season.
Farah is a 6-5 freshman who helped St. Cloud Apollo to the Section 8-3A finals.
Illya Glover, Quentin Wilford and Lalo Bellamy are from Chicago.
"I hope we're going to be the hardest-working team out there," said Kornbaum. "That's why we'll win, because we have more heart than the other teams. This team knows what we have to do. We know that we have people gunning for us so we're just going to have to be ready."
Monson has faith in his new teammates to handle the pressure of defending division, state and regional titles.
"They don't seem like guys who are going to break under pressure," he said. "I know they can rise to the occasion."
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5856.
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