Going into the last high-school season, the Mankato East boys basketball team had some big holes to fill. Coming off a state-tournament appearance, the Cougars need to replace a bunch of seniors, including Damani Hayes, Uhana Ochan and Edmond Oyet.

But the Cougars still produced a very good season, going 24-5 and reaching the semifinals of the section, and it seems as though that success has carried over to the summer. So far, the Cougars have gone 10-0 and won three tournaments, beating some quality teams along the way such as Austin, Alexandria and Park Center.

“We had a really good season last year, and I thought we’d be pretty good this summer,” East coach Joe Madson said. “We should be pretty good in the school season, too.”

All across southern Minnesota, boys and girls basketball teams have been working to get better over the last six weeks. There have been club and school-team tournaments, along with summer leagues and various camps. It used to be summertime was for vacations and rest, but if you’re not improving right now, other teams are, and that will show up in November.

The Waseca boys have plenty of firepower returning from last season’s state runner-up teams, and the Waseca girls seem to be in a good place, led by point guard Gus Boyer. It appears that the Waseca boys and girls should be the heavy favorites in Section 2, having dropped down to Class AA.

There are plenty of other teams that look good this summer. The Minnesota Valley Lutheran boys have won all six of their games in the Bethany Lutheran College league, heading into Saturday’s finale. Martin Luther/Granada-Huntley-East Chain and St. Clair are both 5-1. Those three teams play in the always-tough Section 2A so that could be a fun tournament again in March.

The Belle Plaine girls have some firepower, as do Waterville-Elysian-Morristown and Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial. The work they’re putting in this summer will surely show up next season.

East still has two more tournaments remaining this summer, and seniors-to-be Jax Madson, Joich Gong and Jordan Merseth are getting noticed by recruiters. Madson and Gong have been getting contacted by Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference programs, while Merseth, at 6-foot-6 has already received a football offer from NAIA Morningside.

However, it’s hardly been a three-person effort this summer. Pal Kueth is a returning starter, and Grant Hermer was one of the first guards off the bench. Dominik Bangu, Brandon Schendel, Owen Atherton and BJ Omot have also played key roles in this summer’s success.

“I thought it might take us a while to come together last year, with all of the players we lost, but we picked up some early wins and got some confidence,” coach Madson said. “Now my expectations, the staff’s expectations, the players’ expectations ... We know we can be pretty good. We won’t be coming in under the radar next season.”

That’s what the summer is for, building the skills and confidence and increasing the odds of a winning season.

Many teams in the area are taking advantage of this time to be prepared.

Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-3446353, e-mail at ccourrier@mankatofreepress.com or follow his Twitter feed @ ChadCourrier.

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