After two straight state titles and four championships in the last seven years, St. Thomas More has left the door open for the rest of the Class A region and Black Hills Conference squads.
Just how open that door is remains to be seen.
The Cavaliers lost about 95 percent of their scoring from last year due to graduation. It would be safe to say that this will be a rebounding year for head coach Dave Hollenbeck, who is entering his 17th year at the helm.
It also might have such programs as Spearfish, Custer and Red Cloud licking their respective chops.
“We have a group of guys who have never seen any varsity time; we have a group of guys who have not been on a varsity roster,” Hollenbeck said. “We’re basically starting over.”
But starting over for a program such as More isn’t always the same as starting over for a program that has not developed consistent winning ways.
“We have to develop our younger players who are coming up,” Hollenbeck said. “We have to just continue with high expectations with our program and that combined can produce results for us.”
What little experience the Cavs do have will be from their three seniors – 6-foot-4 forward Adrian Goetzinger, 5-10 guard Landon Kudma and 6-1 guard Jake Sullivan.
“We’ll count on their leadership to help us grow throughout the year so we can be prepared hopefully by February,” Hollenbeck said.
Juniors looking to fill some spots are 6-1 forward Jeron Laurenti, 5-10 guard Connor Merriam and 6-2 forward Jacob Henderson.
While the Cavaliers lack experience returning, the Spartans’ roster oozes with senior leadership – nine seniors in fact.
Spearfish head coach Erik Skoglund has a problem all coaches would love to have – finding a way to get all nine seniors on the court. Skoglund said the team has to stay hungry and not take any possessions off.
“It’s pretty unique to have nine players who step on the floor who are all seniors,” Skoglund said. “Not only have our seniors become vocal leaders, they’re doing everything we ask on the court. If they can stay humble and hungry, they’ll be a force at the end of the year.”
Those nine seniors include returning starters, 6-2 forward Blaine Bacon, 5-10 point guard Ryan Couch and 5-10 guard Brandon Kemp, who scored 35 points against Pierre last season.
Custer, under the veteran Larry Luitjens, has just two starters returning, 5-8 senior point guard Cody Martinz and 6-5 junior forward Chase Glazier.
While both averaged double figures, Luitjens lost to graduation leading scorer, rebounder and assist man Chad Bryant.
“We’re going to have to use more than one person to make up for what we lost in him,” Luitjens said. “But we have the kids to do that.”
Also back are senior forward Erik Hiltunen and 5-11 senior guard Jared Thomsen, both in the rotation last year.
“We have athletic depth; we don’t really have basketball-player depth. But we have a lot of athletes,” Luitjens said. “If we can score some baskets, we should be a pretty good team.”
The Red Cloud Crusaders return just two varsity players from last season, but boast some leadership with eight seniors on the roster.
“We’ve got a lot of seniors with no varsity experience,” Red Cloud first-year coach Christian McGhee said. “They have been in the program for four years and they have been good leaders. But the eight seniors on the roster will help us. They are a lot more mature in running plays and executing.”
Cully Pourier, a 6-3 guard/forward leads the way for the Crusaders, who also will feature Dominic Pilcher, a 6-5 transfer from Chadron, Neb., and 6-1 freshman Kobe O’Rourke.
For other teams in the Black Hills Conference, it’s all about improving.
Belle Fourche returns three players from last season, 5-9 guard Bryce Kudlock, 5-11 guard Trevor Nicholas and 6-4 forward Jordan Mitchell.
“We will have a very competitive team this year that has the goal of improving from the last two years,” Belle Fourche coach Nick Redden said. “I have seen a focused group of players these last two weeks that has brought about major growth from last year.”
Hill City returns six players from last year, including junior starters, 5-9 guard Dylan Thomas and 6-1 guard Gage Skillingstad.
“We will be underdogs in a lot of games this season but we have embraced that role and really focused on having a blue collared attitude,” Hill City coach Blake Gardner said. “The Black Hills Conference is extremely challenging, so every night we will be expected to play our best basketball to be competitive.”
Hot Springs coach Aaron Noteboom said he has a solid group of returners from last year's team, including 6-1 senior guard Chad Janis, 6-1 senior guard Austin Benford and 6-3 senior forward TJ Beougher.
“They have stepped up and become leaders this year and I expect significant contributions from them on both ends of the floor,” Noteboom said.
Lead-Deadwood has three seniors back from last year, 6-4 post Tyler Stuen, 6-0 guard Gabe Dirksen and 5-10 guard Garrett Mack.
In Class AA, Rapid City Central is pushing for its fourth straight state tournament appearance under head coach Mike Purcell.
Three seniors lead the way, 6-4 forward Ian Barse, 5-11 guard John Fierro and 6-6 center Mitchell Newhouse. Two juniors also return with some experience, 6-1 guard Jake Seales and 6-1 guard Jesse Riddle.
The Cobblers are going to be young not only with age, but varsity experience. Yet, Purcell said they are not looking at that lack of varsity experience as an adverse situation.
“It’s available for all kids to compete for spots,” Purcell said. “It comes down to these kids working hard and executing. We don’t have anything set yet for a majority of the positions or bench. We have some things coming together with our seniors, but it has been high intensity and very competitive.”
Rapid City Stevens, Sturgis and Douglas would like to end Central’s state tournament run by putting together improved seasons.
The Raiders are young as well, led by first-year head coach Derris Buus, who spent the last two years as an assist with the program, coming from Winner, where he was the girls’ head coach for five years as well as an assistant in the boys program.
Leading the way for the Raiders is 6-2 junior Steven Schaeffer, a double-digit scorer from last season. Stevens has just two seniors on the roster – 6-2 guard/forward Brett Bennett and 5-10 guard/forward John Johnson.
Also looking to contribute are 6-0 junior guard Matt Minnick, 5-10 junior guard Jacob Vifquain, 5-10 junior guard Trae Olson, 6-1 junior forward Kevin Blackett and 6-5 junior post Ben Sorenson.
“The biggest thing for us is getting out there and creating an identity for ourselves,” Buus said. “We have to stick to the basics and try to build. We need to keep getting better each and every game. We need to take that attitude and build from there and get better each game.”
Sturgis was easily the youngest team in the area last season and the Scoopers are still young. But a solid group of freshmen who played a lot of minutes are now sophomores with some experience.
“We’ll still be really young, but with that youth we have a lot of excitement and effort,” Sturgis coach Orion Thompson said.
Back leading the way are 6-3 junior guard Tanner Weaver and 5-10 junior Jeremy Guttierez, along with sophomores, 6-7 post Kellen Barden, 5-11 guard Kody Kracht and 6-1 guard Jacob Simmons.
Douglas looks to improve with returning senior starters, 5-10 guard Austin Shaffer and 6-0 guard and Matt Vinson, the team’s leading scorer from last season.
Some other players that will contribute to the team this year are juniors, 6-3 junior forward Jacob Blair, 6-2 forward Caleb Diggs and 6-2 forward Ken Eiman and sophomores, 5-10 guard Kenyada Lattimore, 5-10 guard Aaron Murphy, 6-2 forward Andrew Patosa and 5-8 guard Devyne Strong.
“We’re working hard to be ready for the season,” Douglas coach Travis Miller said. “We are going to look to our upper classmen to help lead the team. We will need to be a scrappy team that works hard every possession to achieve our goals.”
All roads to the state tournament in the West River will go through White River. The defending champions are a strong bet to make a return trip to the state tournament under head coach Eldon Marshall.
White River returns four starters from last season, including all-stater, 5-11 senior guard Wyatt Krogman.
Oelrichs, Wall, Philip and New Underwood look to bring back strong squads in an attempt to dethrone White River.
“We are looking for a great year as we return our top 10 players from last year," New Underwood coach Stacy Finkbeiner said. “We have a nice mix of seniors, juniors and sophomores.”
Back leading the way are 6-4 senior post Dalton Benter and 6-4 junior center Tanner Brindley, along with 6-2 senior guard Cameron Koch, 5-10 senior guard Lucas Hall, 5-11 junior guard Clint Stangle, 5-11 sophomore guard Brandon Koch, 6-2 junior forward Clay Farland, 6-2 forward Jace Philipsen, 6-0 forward Aaron Oberlander, and 6-2 forward Jhett Finkbeiner.
The Wall Eagles have a solid group of upperclassmen, with four seniors and eight juniors leading the way as they shoot for their fourth straight regional championship game.
Seniors back include 5-10 guard Tyler Trask, 6-1 forward Laketon McLaughlin, 5-8 guard Lane Hustead and 6-4 forward Ryder Wilson.
“This group of boys understands what it takes to be successful as a basketball team and is prepared to work together to have a great season,” Wall coach Ryan Dinger said. “I am very excited to coach this team and prepare them for life as individuals and create a team-first attitude.”
The Oelrichs Tigers look to build off of last season’s 17-2 campaign, with two seniors and an experienced group of juniors returning.
Seniors back include 6-5 center BJ Brings Him Back and 5-10 guard Ray Rouillard, along with juniors, 6-2 forward Eriq Swiftwater, 5-9 guard Rob Rouillard and 6-0 guard Brandon Fast Horse.
Philip has five seniors this season, including 5-10 senior guard Thomas Doolittle, 6-0 senior forward Tate DeJong, 6-5 forward Gunner Hook and 6-0 forward Quade Slovek.
Rapid City Christian has just one senior, 5-11 guard Eli Houchens. Juniors on the team include 6-0 guard Bramm Gurr, 6-0 forward Lucas Clegg, 6-0 forward Charlie Wilhelm and 6-2 forward Jadd Evans.
Harding County looks to build off of last year’s successful season and the momentum of this fall’s state football championship.
“We look to be very competitive with every team on our schedule,” Harding County coach Jay Wammen said.
Back for the Ranchers are 6-1 senior guard Ckyler Floyd, who averaged 21 points a game last season and 5-11 senior guard Jess Feist, who scored 14 points a game. Also back are 6-5 senior center Kruze Robinson, 6-3 sophomore Harley Mollman, 6-2 junior Steven Koch and 6-0 junior forward Kyler Baier.
Edgemont has four seniors on the roster this season, 6-0 guard Zack Evans, 6-0 forward Treg Schaack, 6-0 guard Tim Christopherson, and 6-0 center David Kraus.