Rather than bask in its accomplishment, the Kenyon-Wanamingo boys basketball team started to plot a path forward.
The Knights had just finished a resurgent season that included wins against Lake City and Goodhue, plus a victory in the first round of the Section 2AA tournament for the program’s first postseason win since 2012.
So after a loss to eventual Class AA state champion Waseca ended their season, the Knights immediately looked forward to the 2021-22 campaign.
“We talked to the team about next year and some goals we might have,” K-W coach Brent Lurken said. “We knew we were moving down to Class A, which was a little different section for us, and to the Gopher Conference. Those were two really big changes for us. One of the goals the kids talked about last year was being able to compete for the conference championship and compete for the section championship.”
While it’s still early, the Class A No. 20 Knights appear on track to challenge for both those titles this season. At 9-2, Kenyon-Wanamingo has already equaled its win total from all of last season.
Entering Tuesday’s game at Class A No. 5 Hayfield (played after publication deadline), the Knights are 5-1 in the Gopher Conference, 3-0 against teams in the East Division and 2-1 against Section 1A foes.
“We’ve got off to a pretty good start, but we still have a lot of ballgames until we get close to any one of those goals,” Lurken said.
The catalyst, Lurken said, has been his senior class.
When Lurken shifted over from coaching the girls basketball team to the boys basketball squad in Kenyon to start the 2018-19 season, this year’s seniors were freshmen.
“When I met with those guys that first year I could tell they were a very dedicated group that wanted to get better and wanted to be really good,” Lurken said.
“They put a lot of time in every year, so from when they were ninth graders until now, every year those guys have improved and improved. They’ve set the tone for the turnaround of the program.”
That eight-player senior class — consisting of Paul Kortsch, Gavin Sommer, Preston Leninger, Trevor Steberg, Laden Nerison, Luke Alme, Josh Schmidt and Nathan Carroll — are at the nucleus of this year’s fast start.
Nerison has turned into a double-double machine on the wing, where his length allows him to swallow up rebounds and his quickness lets him slash into the lane. Entering the year, Lurken said he expected Nerison, Steberg and Alme to shoulder the scoring load.
With Steberg and Alme missing large parts of the start of the season with injury, Nerison’s ascent to the next level has allowed the Knights to continue scoring at a high rate.
That’s not the only factor, however. Kortsch has continued his maturation in the middle to provide Kenyon-Wanamingo with a shot-blocking force defensively and a matchup problem for opposing teams offensively.
“It was really cool to see Paul Kortsch really come into his own this year,” Lurken said. “Every year he’s started to develop a little bit more. Big guys generally take longer to develop and this year he’s really started to come into his own as a shot blocker and rebounder. He’s been a huge factor in our defensive success.”
The other major factor has been the emergence of Sommer, who was a part-time varsity player last year. He entered the starting lineup this winter and has developed into the spearhead of an aggressive pressing defense that’s turned turnovers into layups all season.
In the halfcourt offense, Sommer has also provided another 3-point shooting threat for the Knights.
“He’s been our second- or third-leading scorer in many of our games, so he’s really stepped up and given us a good scoring punch,” Lurken said. “Most importantly, Gavin’s been one of our top defenders all year. He usually guards the other team’s point guard and he’s been hocking the ball and putting a lot of pressure on the ball for us. He’s been huge for us this year offensively and defensively.”
Steberg and Alme are working themselves back into full-time varsity minutes, and Kenyon-Wanamingo likely needs both to reach its goals.
In addition to highly-ranked Hayfield, Section 1A also features Class A No. 4 Rushford-Peterson, in addition to a Goodhue team that’s delivered the Knights one of their two losses to this point.
“We certainly didn’t get any type of easier path by moving down a class this year, especially when you go to Section 1,” Lurken said. “There’s always going to be a lot of good basketball down in southern Minnesota, but I think we have as good a shot as anybody to come out of the section. It’s going to be really exciting and be a really good section tournament.”