MANKATO — The Mankato West boys basketball team has taken some lumps the last couple of seasons, and it appeared this season might to feature a breakthrough.
But like a physical, blindside screen, the Scarlets’ chances to show improvement took a big jolt when all-conference center Dan Wills suffered a serious knee injury toward the end of the football season.
“When I saw him lying on the field, I knew it was serious,” said senior Alex Knutson, one of the first to get to Wills to offer some help that day. “But it didn’t really hit me how serious it was until the next week when he had the MRI.”
West opens the season on Tuesday with a nonconference home game against Hutchinson, minus its top returning player. Wills will miss the entire season, taking away 18.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and a stout defensive presence in the post.
“It’s part of sports, and if you do this long enough, it’s going to happen,” West coach Tom Boone said. “But it’s hard to see it happen to such a good kid who has worked hard to have success and help the team have some success and be a leader.
“You don’t replace him with one guy. You need a few guys to step up and do what they have to do.”
Knutson, a three-year starter at guard, is one of the players that will need to contribute more. Last season, he averaged 7.8 points, 4.7 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He led the team with 30 3-pointers, making 46 percent from behind the arc, splitting time between point guard and shooter.
“I have to pick up a lot,” Knutson said. “I need to be more of a leader, I need to
score more points, and everyone needs to grab more rebounds.”
Senior Austin Majeskie averaged 8.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, and the 6-foot-7 wing shot 51 percent from the field.
“He’s always been a shooter, but he’s gotten stronger and more aggressive around the basket,” Boone said. “He’s worked hard.”
The other senior on the team is guard Nick Herwig, who averaged 1.9 points. Juniors Kennedy Maker, Dillon Dale and Braeden Meyers are in the rotation.
Sophomore guards Carter Burmeister and Josh Athey both started varsity games last season, and Travon Jones and Ryan Schlichte will see time off the bench.
“We showed some signs of maturing, physically and mentally, last year,” Boone said. “We showed that we can be competitive, but now we have to figure out how to take the next step.”
The Scarlets have been 8-19 in each of the last two seasons, and this was supposed to be the one when they returned to compete for Big Nine Conference and section championships. Even without Wills, Knutson said the goals haven’t changed.
“A lot can happen during the season,” Knutson said. “I’ve been playing basketball a long time, and I’d like to win a section game. Our goal is to get back on track and get to the state tournament.”