What will the Willmar boys basketball team do for an encore?
Last season will be hard to equal -- a 17-1 conference record, Section 2AAA champion, third place in the state tournament and 25 wins.
The last time Willmar took home hardware from the state tournament was in 1958. The Cardinals were third that year, too.
The Cardinals took the consolation trophy in 1954, finishing 25-1. Their lone loss was to Austin 43-40 in the state quarterfinals.
What happened the next year? Willmar was 19-2 going into the District 20 final, but lost to Cokato 64-60.
In the 1958-59 season, Russ Adamson, still a young coach, who had starred for Minneapolis powerhouse Roosevelt in the mid-1940s, knew it would be tough after losing All-Stater Dean Anderson, the team's top scorer. But the returnees included Dean Wick and big Red Harvey, who would be an All-State selection, too, his final year.
The Cards knocked off Howard Lake 67-61 for the District 20 title, but in the Region 5 semifinal lost to Minneapolis South 61-48 to finish 21-2. It wasn't a soft schedule either: Willmar posted wins over Roosevelt, Bemidji and Brainerd. The only other loss that season was in the second game when Olivia slowed the game down and beat the heavily-favored Cardinals 43-35.
You can't lose four full or part-time starters and not feel it. Casey Sussenguth, Mike Dunham and Adam Lindblad had spectacular seasons.
It seems unlikely this year's edition will dominate a stronger CLC lineup this year.
Still, this team will entertain. Taylor Filipek will move out to point guard, ala Rocori's 6-6 Justin Stommes two years ago, where he can gun or pass over the defender.
Filipek spent part of his summer playing with other emerging talent from around the state: 6-10 Chad Calcaterra of Cloquet, 6-9 Kevin Noreen of Minnesota Transition, 6-7 Marshall Bjorklund of Sibley East and 6-1 guard John Crockett of Totino-Grace.
They were all part of the Minnesota Magic Elite 17u team that played in tournaments in four states, and reaching the Sweet 16 at the nationals in Florida before bowing out.
Willmar helmsmen Steve Grove says he sees a real difference in the 6-6 junior, who can also post up. He's stronger, handles the ball better and is ready to take a leadership role, said the head coach.
Jordan Smith has a fine outside shot (54 percent from the floor including 70 three-pointers last year) and can handle the toughest defensive assignments. Alec Saunders and Isaiah Streed, both seniors, will not be pushed around and both have shown they can score. Sophomore Brian Reeves is an exciting prospect who could provide scoring inside.
Minnesota Basketball News ranks Hopkins No. 1, St. Cloud Tech No. 4 and Mankato West No. 8 in its Top 25 Power Poll. West is slotted No. 2, behind Minneapolis Washburn, in AAA and Willmar No. 7.
Since a 3-20 record in 1998-99, the Willmar program has been on a roll. Mike Hanson's last two teams were 17-7 and 13-10. He handed off to Grove, his assistant who had starred in both football and basketball at Grand Forks Red River and then played football at Concordia College. Grove's first team went 12-12 but since the Cardinals have posted six straight winning season, four of them with 21 or more wins.
Pat Dorsey, who played on two state tournament entries in the late 1980s for Willmar, will welcome the Cardinals to Edina on Friday to open the season. This is the first of 18 non-conference games for the member of the five-team Classic Lake Conference.
Dorsey, the Hornets' head coach, has three starters back from the team that collared Willmar 84-55 on Jan. 10 in Willmar.
On the fly
n Dan Swanson is a sophomore forward seeing action for the Concordia Cobbers hockey team that ended a 32-game winless streak in a 9-2 victory over UM-Crookston on Nov. 26 at Moorhead.
n David Lutz is an assistant coach on the Wayzata team that walloped Blaine 27-7 in the AAAAA football championship game on Friday.
n Junior Sam Sussenguth played one minute and had a rebound in the North Dakota State Bison's loss at Minnesota on Saturday. Ryan Hagemeyer is starting his sophomore season at Concordia College. The Cobbers sixth man is scoring 8.5 ppg with 2.5 rpg while logging 18 minutes. Kyle Townswick is no longer playing basketball at SJU.
n Mary Sussenguth will be one of eight letterwinners returning for Minnesota State Moorhead volleyball next fall. The 6-2 junior led the 17-15 Dragons with 114 ace blocks and also supplied 184 kills.