LAST YEAR'S RECORD: 26-3, 14-0 Gopher (1st).
FINAL GAME: A 70-66 loss against Springfield in the Section 2A sub-section final.
Without four starters and the bulk of its varsity rotation, the Waterville-Elysian-Morristown boys basketball team will face a tough task in defending its Gopher Conference championship from last season.
Gone is last year's leading scorer, Grant McBroom (25.2 points a game), along with Cole Kokoschke, Zach Sticken, Nick LeMieux, Dylan Androli, Matthew Van Houdt and Gabe Lemcke, but W-E-M coach Jeff Wagner believes pieces still remain that can help the Buccaneers finish toward the top of the conference once again.
"Some of the best kids that we've ever had in the program, so that part's tough, but you get back a big piece with Domanik Paulson and I think Brady Nutter is going to surprise some people," Wagner said. "We've got some other pieces to plug back in."
Last year, Paulson started as a sophomore alongside four seniors and directed the offense while scoring 14.8 points a game, dishing out a team-high 5.4 assists a contest and swiping 4.2 steals a night. Alongside him, Wagner believes Nutter can step into a starring role as a junior.
Nutter transferred at the start of last school year from Bethlehem Academy to W-E-M and moved to Waterville, his original home, but was not deemed eligible to play by the Minnesota State High School League until close to the end of the season.
"Had he been eligible to start the year, he probably would have been in the top seven rotation all year," Wagner said. "He's a 6-3 kid, a long kid and he shoots it a little bit."
Wagner also pointed to Jonathan Remme and Bryce Hermel — a pair of juniors that played primarily junior varsity last season — as two players that can step in now that the senior blockade is cleared and more playing time is available.
There's not much that's certain, however, since practice will not start until January and the team did not enjoy a full complement of summer workouts to start the transition from last year's large senior class.
"We didn't have much of a summer," Wagner said. "We did a few things, but there wasn't really a whole lot in terms of our kids playing in tournaments and stuff like that. Kids were off on their own, and of course Domanik was on some AAU teams, so he got to play quite a bit. It was a bad year for us not to have a good, solid summer."
The relatively young and inexperienced W-E-M team will have its hands full maintaining its standing atop the Gopher Conference against Blooming Prairie, which lost twice to the Buccaneers last year by a combined five points, as well as experience-heavy Maple River and NRHEG squads.
Ultimately, a lot of that will come down to Paulson transitioning from McBroom's sidekick to W-E-M's superhero.
"Well, he's going to have to be everything, and he kind of is," Wagner said. "He's long, he's very athletic, he can guard people in the post, he can guard points guards on the perimeter, he drives to the basket well, he shoots it well. The one thing he really needs to get better at is getting his offense and getting to the rim. As athletic as he is, I don't see that being a problem for him, but that's something he's going to have to work on. As he gets to the rim, other people are going to open up and he's a great passer and has great court vision. If he gets to the rim better, he'll be able to find other people."