By PATRICK SLACK
With perhaps the deepest senior class in school history, Upsala rattled off 31 consecutive wins, a perfect Prairie Conference record and a fourth-place finish in the state last winter.
That class, which included departed graduates Eric Frieler, Nick Frieler, Avery Smieja, Matt Abeler, Andy Nelson and Garrett Wolf, filled out all but two spots in the team’s regular rotation.
However, plenty of reason for optimism exists as the Cardinals set to embark on a new quest, thanks to the enviable inside-outside combination of seniors Christian Pekarek and Dylan Zimmerman.
The duo, which averaged 32.5 points a year ago, along with senior Nathan Ehrenberg lead a roster that is adding a group of newcomers thin on experience yet blessed with size and perimeter shooting, a roster that isn’t interested in starting over from scratch.
“I think rebuilding wouldn’t be the way I look at it,” Upsala head coach Vern Capelle said. “We’re a different team for sure. We’re definitely close to the same caliber team. Christian and Dylan are a big part of that obviously.
“We’re not as quick, probably not overall as athletic as last year, but we’re definitely a lot bigger. Depending on what we choose to do with match-ups, we could be really big, we could be smaller and quicker. It gives us a lot more versatile team.”
A few of those taller options will be juniors Jeffrey Halverson, Jeremy Halverson and Aidan Guthrie, all standing taller than 6-foot-4, with the next wave of outside shooters possessing perhaps an even higher ceiling than last year’s collection, Capelle said.
“We didn’t need many underclassmen other than Dylan and Christian (last year),” Capelle said. “These juniors this year though practiced every day with those seniors last year and that really made a difference with them. They became more confident, more aggressive players.”
Now the Cardinals will look to repeat as Prairie Conference champions, with West Central Area, Browerville and Swanville a few of the top contenders, with perennial power Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa moving into Section 5A due to realignment.
“Number one, we have to stay healthy,” Capelle said. “Last year, the depth that we had, we were a little more evenly balanced where we could weather a few of those injuries along the way. This year, we have two guys where if we don’t have them on the floor it’s going to really change the dynamic of our team.”
Seniors on this year’s team include Pekarek, Zimmerman, Ehrenberg, Russell Janssen, Eric Kiley and Shawn Pohlmann.
Upsala was scheduled to open the season at Sauk Centre, Friday. The Cardinals’ home opener is versus Pillager, Tuesday.