FAIRMONT - Fairmont mentor Jared Thompson guided the Cardinal boys basketball lineup to a single-season school-record 23 victories, an appearance in the Section 3AA finals and a shared South Central Conference championship last season.
With three all-SCC first-team selections and a number of key reserves returning from the record-setting 2012-13 campaign, Thompson and the Cardinals earned the respect of his coaching peers and the media by netting the No. 4 spot in the Minnesota Associated Press' Class AA preseason state rankings earlier this week.
"It's nice for our program to be recognized for all of the hard work that the players have put into it, but we still have work to do on the court," said Fairmont's fourth-year head coach, whose lineup tips off the season today by playing host to nonconference opponent Windom Area in a 4:30 p.m. varsity game at Cardinal Gym.
SET FOR TIP-OFF — Members of the 2013-14 Fairmont Cardinal boys basketball team tipping off the season at 4:30 p.m. today against Windom Area at Cardinal Gym in Fairmont include, front row (l-r): Taylor Beebe, Damien Loyd, Derek Hunwardsen, Cole Emler, Parker Monsen, Dustin Slaughter and Nate Johnson. Back row: Derek Mielke, Ben Abel, Mitch Pfingsten, Josh Eversman, Jay Ruen, Zach Brown and Luke Becker. Not pictured: Nick Roggow, Luke Peterson and Spencer Chirpich. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
"With a couple of (preseason) injuries, I don't know exactly how all of the pieces will fit together yet, but having three all-conference players back is a good place to start," Thompson said in reference to 6-foot-1 senior guard Mitch Pfingsten, 6-4 senior swingman Josh Eversman and 6-2 senior forward Jay Ruen.
Pfingsten returns for his fourth and final varsity campaign as the Cardinal program's No. 3 all-time leading scorer. The two-time Minnesota AP honorable-mention all-state choice needs only 27 points to eclipse Jeff Janssen (1,427) and 81 to overtake Eric Hugoson (1,481) for the top spot in the record books.
The three-time Sentinel All-Area and three-time all-SCC selection engineered the big red machine's high-octane offense with a scoring clip of 21.4 points per outing to complement team-bests of 77 assists and 51 steals. Pfingsten also garnered a second-best team mark of 5.1 rebounds per game in 2012-13.
"People talk about how many points he scores, but they don't see the post-practice workout that he does on his own," Thompson said in reference to Pfingsten's self-motivated drive to hone his hardwood skills. "People don't see the extra work - they just see the results on the scoreboard."
While Pfingsten can shake a defender with his patented cross-over dribble, the shooting point guard has worked diligently on improving his skills on the other end of the court.
"Mitch has stepped up defensively and shown a lot of improvement so far," said Thompson.
While Fairmont steps onto the court with the majority of its firepower intact via Eversman's No. 2 scoring pace (10.1 ppg) and top rebounding mark (5.6 rpg), and Ruen's third-best team scoring average (8.4 ppg) and 4.1 rebounds per outing, defense has been one of Thompson's preseason focuses.
"I definitely feel the most comfortable with the offense that we have coming back, but we graduated a lot of defense from last year's team," said Thompson. "I know that sounds odd, but we've been spending time working on getting our defense back to where we ended last season. It takes longer for defense to get in synch than offense.
"We've got a great group of guys who are willing to work hard on the defensive end, so that's a real plus. Getting there won't happen overnight, but it will be a work in progress."
Nick Roggow, a 6-3 senior power forward, returns after supplying valuable minutes as a key reserve a year ago, and will likely start alongside 6-3 senior center Luke Peterson in the Cardinals' frontcourt.
Zach Brown, a 6-3 senior post player, along with 5-10 senior guard Taylor Beebe and 6-2 junior forward Ben Abel also will work into the early-season rotation.
"Nick and Luke, along with Zach, will give us a physical presence inside, while Ben Abel will add to the post area despite being a bit undersized for the position," said Thompson. "There's a lot of competition for playing time on this team."
Unfortunately for Thompson, he will have to wait for 3-point shooting specialist Luke Becker to return to full strength after suffering an ankle injury during the Class 3A state football quarterfinals that has the senior guard in a walking boot.
"We really don't know when Luke will be back, but we have four junior guards who have the same size and do similar things on the court fighting for minutes," Thompson said in reference to 5-10 Nate Johnson, 5-10 Parker Monsen, 5-11 Derek Hunwardsen and 5-10 Cole Emler.
Thompson and the Cardinals also will be without junior point guard Spencer Chirpich for the majority, if not all, of the current campaign. Chirpich was scheduled for hip surgery for femoroacetabular impingement syndrome this month, with a hopeful projected return of mid-February.
With a talent-laden roster, Thompson once again hopes to be in the hunt for both a conference and a sectional championship when March rolls around.
"I'm not big on putting goals down on paper, but more about getting better each day. If we improve on a daily basis, everything else will fall into place," said Thompson.
Thompson anticipates challenges for the conference crown from Waseca and 2013 co-SCC champion St. Peter, while Jackson County Central, Martin County West and Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial will be tough opponents in the Section 3AA, South Sub-Section playoffs.
But Thompson is not looking too far ahead as he prepares his Cardinals for today's 4:30 p.m. season-opener against Windom Area.
"Windom's physical and fairly young as they'll probably start two or maybe three sophomores against us," said Thompson. "They'll throw a lot of different defensive looks at us, so we'll have to be prepared for that."