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Accepting roles will be key to Braves' success

With 12 letterwinners returning, head coach Jeremy Nordick sees the potential for a successful season from the Menahga boys basketball team.

How successful that season will be depends on how those returning players adjust to their new roles.

The Braves graduated six seniors, including all five starters, from a team that went 6-8 in Park Region Conference play and 12-15 overall last season.

Leading that group last season was the senior crew of Damon Howard (16.3 points a game, 73 3-pointers, 114 rebounds), Kirby Hrdlicka (12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game with 60 steals), Luke Wurdock (8.7 points a game, 79 assists, 68 steals), Al Pietila (5.6 points a game, 48 steals), Canton Matson (3.2 points a game, 93 rebounds) and Charlie Steidler-Thompson (2.2 points a game, 35 assists). Howard and Hrdlicka were all-conference players while Wurdock was an all-conference honorable mention selection.

Being counted to take over starting roles and provide depth off the bench this winter will be seniors Owen Anderson, Jordan Honga, Grant Tolkkinen and Anthony Wurdock; juniors Zach Floyd, Mason Hotakeinen, Thomas Litzau and Garin Matson; sophomores Tristan Aho, Wade Berttunen and Jonah Howard; and freshman Charlie Hodge.

Anderson was fifth in scoring at 3.4 points a game last season. In 21 games, Anderson scored 72 points and had 57 rebounds and 34 steals. Aho played in 16 games and had 40 points and 23 rebounds. Howard played in 19 games and had 33 points and 35 rebounds. Floyd played in 18 games and had 17 points.

Also returning with varsity experience are Wurdock (14 games), Tolkkinen (12 games), Litzau (10 games), Hotakeinen (eight games), Matson (six games), Berrtunen (five games) and Hodge (five games).

"All 12 of these guys are and have been competing for playing time since last March. Many of them have been working hard in the offseason, so it should make for exciting and competitive practices to start the season," said Nordick. "The fun thing about this group is that many of them have similar size and all bring something to the table. We call them our 'hybrids.' They key to us moving forward is getting them all to understand their individual roles and bringing them together. There may be moments that we've got multiple young guys on the floor at once, which is exciting because they all have a tremendous amount of potential."

The junior varsity will consist of senior Alex Cheney; sophomores Victor Aho, Keegan Heegard, Gavin Hillukka, Devin Leritz, Patrick Simmons and Nick Treinen; and freshmen Andreas Aho, Andrew Litzau, Jack Pietila and Jared Tolkkinen.

Verndale won the conference title last season with a 13-1 record while Pillager and Sebeka finished at 10-4 and Wadena-Deer Creek went 7-7. Menahga received the No. 8 seed in the North for the Section 5A tournament and opened with an 88-46 win over No. 9 Laporte before being eliminated with a 60-31 loss to No. 1 Nevis, which went on to defeat Browerville/Eagle Valley in the section championship game.

"Right now I see Nevis as the favorite in the section again. In the conference, there are many teams returning some talent, but I see a lot of parity. I think this year a big question mark is who will take home the Park Region trophy," said Nordick, who will be assisted by Tim Wurdock and Zach Kaiser. "This group of kids is a hard-working, coachable and energetic group. They all love the game and will learn something each and every time they take the court. I suspect by the end of the year, we should be very competitive."