To hear Upsala head coach Vern Capelle tell it, either of his team’s standout seniors could be the focal point of an offense.
Luckily for Capelle, and to the detriment of his eighth-ranked team’s opponents during its recent eight-game surge, the Cardinals don’t have to choose.
With Christian Pekarek entrenched as a three-year starter at point guard, Dylan Zimmerman has stepped into a co-starring role for the Cardinals this winter, using a diverse array of talent that can cause foes to have conniptions.
“He definitely has a unique combination of size and athleticism for a player from a small school,” Capelle said. “There are not many teams that will have a player with Dylan’s skill set. This makes us a very difficult team to defend, especially when most teams spend so much time focusing on stopping Christian.
“Teams cannot just focus on Christian defensively because Dylan has the ability to score every time he touches the ball, and in multiple ways,” he said. “Dylan is a difficult match-up for our opponents and gives us an excellent offensive ‘one-two punch’ with Christian.”
Together, the dynamic duo has the Cardinals looking every bit as potent as last year’s squad, a thought that seemed highly unlikely after graduating six key seniors from their fourth place team in the state that went 31-2.
“I don’t think anyone expected us to be playing at this level after last season, but we all knew we could do it if we played together and gave effort day in and day out,” Zimmerman said. “To start the season with a loss was tough, but we knew it was to a good Sauk Centre team.
“We have bounced back so well after that opening loss, getting better every day,” he said. “The first week or so our chemistry wasn’t the greatest, but by now we are all coming together and it’s starting to click.”
Whether or not that will take Upsala back to the state tournament remains to be seen.
Top-ranked Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, new to Section 5A due to realignment, will be just one of a slew of challenging postseason opponents in Upsala’s path.
Regardless, the Cardinals will worry about that when the time comes, Zimmerman said. For now, they are simply looking to keep getting better.
“Our team is capable of one thing – we all have to give 100 percent effort and work together to meet our goal: become the best basketball team we are able to be,” Zimmerman said. “That’s what we are capable of. Where that takes us is for us to find out. We just have to do our thing and the pieces will fall. We can achieve anything, and that will be our mindset through the whole season.”
A glimpse into what is possible for Upsala was revealed at the Little Falls Pine Country Classic holiday tournament, Dec. 27 – 28, where the Cardinals knocked off a pair of Class AAA teams in Little Falls and Albany.
For his part, Zimmerman tallied 22 points against Little Falls, hitting 3-of-5 three-point shots, while adding another 16 points versus Albany.
“He is an excellent ball-handler and is able to bring the ball up the court and initiate offense if defenses try to take this away from Christian,” Capelle said. “This attribute makes Dylan a very difficult match-up. If opponents guard him with a guard, he can go inside, and if they try and guard him with a big, he can go to the perimeter and be very effective.”
And while his scoring has taken off, increasing from 9.5 points per game off the bench a year ago to 18.7 per game this season, Zimmerman is also quietly putting up big rebounding numbers, with 10.2 per contest.
“He has a knack to get to the ball,” Capelle said. “Dylan has the ability to get into good position prior to the rebound and when a shot misses, he pursues the ball better than most players do.
“He also anticipates the movement of other players well,” he said. “This allows him to get to the ball first on many occasions. I also think it is pure desire. He is a very competitive player and works very hard to get the ball for our team. Dylan’s most valuable attribute may be his ability to score on offensive rebounds. He has an excellent knack for getting rebounds on the offensive end.”
Although it’s still early in the season, the tournament title should pay dividends as the year goes along, Zimmerman said.
“We knew we had our hands full coming into the tournament, and we executed our game plan very well,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a huge boost and a great feeling to come out of that tourney with two big wins.
“The atmosphere was amazing,” he said. “There is nothing like playing against a great team in a packed gym, ask any player. The momentum is huge, and when you start making a run and feel the momentum shifting to your favor and the crowd starting to get into it, it just makes it so much fun. I’m going to miss playing in that holiday tournament.”
Also helping Upsala thrive as a team, and Zimmerman individually, is the unique size the Cardinals possess for a small-school team, allowing the 6-foot-5 forward the freedom to move around the court, rather than be entrenched in the paint as a solitary big man.
“It’s an enormous advantage,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve always been a driver/cutter type of player, and to have Aidan (Guthrie) and Jeff (Halverson) working the opponents down low gives me so many openings. They create so much with their looping and ability to seal defenders, as well.
“It’s also nice when we have 6-foot-5 Jeremy (Halverson) hitting threes along with 6-foot-7 Jeff. They bring out a threat to finish at the rim or hit from outside, opening up so much space on the floor for me to work with. Just an incredible advantage.”
“The development of Aidan Guthrie and Jeffrey Halverson has helped take some of the pressure off Dylan inside,” Capelle said. “Dylan is a very good perimeter player, especially on offense. Having these other guys step into their roles effectively allows Dylan to play more in space, where he is a very difficult match-up.”
That wide array of skills has turned him into a nightmare for opposing coaches, who already had to contend with the attacking prowess of Pekarek.
“We don’t treat Dylan as a second option in our offense, but as another primary with Christian,” Capelle said. “Christian typically will handle the ball more as our point guard, so he naturally determines what we do.
“Dylan could absolutely be the focal point of an offense,” he said. “He and Christian are excellent complements to each other.”