The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 28, 2013

Risen Savior's 'unique team' headed to state

By Jim Rueda
Free Press Sports Editor

MANKATO — At 6-foot-6 and wielding a 14-points per game average, you might expect to find Goanar Mar playing for some high-powered high school team hoping for a state tournament berth.

That may be in Mar’s future, but right now the eighth-grader is a key contributor for a relatively unknown basketball team at Risen Savior Lutheran School in Mankato. Risen Savior serves students in grades 1-8 and the Knights basketball team is made up mostly of junior-high age kids who, collectively, give the squad a unique flavor.

In addition to having a 6-6 post in Mar, which few junior high schools have, the Knights have a girl in the starting lineup as well as a fifth-grader at starting point guard. In 26 games this year, Risen Savior has lost only once — to the Dakota Meadows Middle School team by one point.

“I knew we were going to have a successful season,” Knights’ head coach Nate Persons said. “We had everybody back from last year and they all grew from 2-4 inches. I don’t think I realized how good we would be until we went to our first tournament and won it.”

One of the teams Risen Savior defeated during that tournament was a school from Bloomington that perennially gets invited to the Minnesota State Lutheran Grade School Tournament. Their coach talked to Persons afterward and told him they should apply to be eligible for the state tourney.

“I talked it over with our principal, Jason Rupnow, and our feeling was if we’re going to do it, this is the year.”

Persons submitted the team’s roster, record and statistics to the state selection committee and the Knights were recently notified that they had been selected to play in the tournament. Their first game is tonight at Concordia University in St. Paul.

Mar, who can dunk, may be the team’s most dominant player, but seventh-grader Damani Hayes is a close second, averaging 12 points per game. Persons describes Hayes as a beast on both ends of the court.

Seventh-grader Jacob Kiecker is the team’s fastbreak guru. “That’s where he gets a lot of his points,” Persons said.

Eighth-grader Cham Omot is the only girl on the squad. Risen Savior does not have enough players to field a girls team so Cham plays with the boys. Persons said she’s deserving of the opportunity.

“She’s our defensive champion and she loves it,” Persons said. “She can play the whole game without taking a break and we usually have her guard the other team’s best player. That really helps our overall defense.”

Cham’s younger brother, Dumwa, is the fifth-grade starter. At 5-1, he’s not tall but he’s fast and can handle the ball.

“It’s fun to watch him drive inside and score against the much older and taller players,” Persons said. “He’s very quick and if team’s try to press him they usually back off right away because he can break it.”

Seventh-grader Keegen Jeffers and eighth-grader Dominic Flunker round out the seven-person team.

Despite the team’s success, Persons makes sure the players are always aware that they’re representing Risen Savior school, which was formed by two churches — St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran and St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran — about eight years ago.

They pray before and after every game, regardless of the outcome. “We thank God if we win and we thank God if we lose. Basically, we just thank him for keeping us safe and allowing us to do our best.”

Should the Knights do well enough at state, there’s a possibility they could get invited to the national tournament in Indiana later this month. It’s a possibility Persons prefers not to think about just yet.

“We’re just having fun right now,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have some really good, really talented kids. They’re all playing well.”