Spring Grove boys rebuild with many new faces, new roles

By: 
S. Lee Epps

There have been younger Spring Grove boys basketball teams; there have also been squads with less height. But with only two returning letter winners, this 2019-20 Lion cage crew could be reasonably considered the program's least experienced roster - at least in the 26-year tenure of 2019 Class A State Coach of the Year Wade Grinde, who enters his 25th season as the Lions' head coach.

There have been years with no returning starters, but not this season; junior Caden Grinde is back after an all-conference season as a sophomore and is this year's featured player in Section 1A of the Breakdown publication.

Responding to Breakdown's question about the strength of this year's Lions, Caden Grinde said, "We work hard and don't quit. We pride ourselves on defense."

That publication ranks Spring Grove as the third best in the section behind No. 1 Rushford-Peterson and No. 2 Hayfield and just ahead of two conference rivals - No. 4 Grand Meadow and No. 5 Randolph. That says much about respect for the Lion program but sets the bar high for an inexperienced team.

Spring Grove is coming off the deepest playoff run in program history. The 2019 boys went 25-5 and placed third at the state tournament, capping an eighth straight 20-win season and a ninth consecutive East Division championship in the Southeast Conference. 

No other Southeast Conference boy has ever experienced a varsity victory against Spring Grove. Last year, the Lion lads extended their conference winning streak to 74 games after winning 140 of their last 142 SEC contests. The only loss in the last 100 games came with three starters sidelined with injuries.

In addition to the fewest returning letter winners in at least a quarter century, the 23 high school players in the gymnasium are the most in five years.

That number of candidates and the lack of varsity experience makes the season unique for Coach Grinde, who says the coaches do not know what the ceiling is or what should be the ultimate expectation for this group of Lions. 

While many of these athletes were involved in off-season summer league action, many were not. There are several candidates returning to basketball after not playing for a year or two or with no prior experience in organized basketball. Coach Grinde says the highly experienced coaching staff is ready to mentor everyone in the gymnasium.

There may need to be more attention to fundamental skill development than usual at the same time the coaches define roles and playing combinations. 

Graduation claimed five seniors, including four starters, who combined to earn 17 varsity letters during their Lion cage careers. Spring Grove must replace 79% of the scoring and assists, 81% of the rebounds and 73% of the steals.

Caden Grindewill be the only name on the roster that many area rivals may recognize. As a sophomore starter last year, the 6-foot-3 guard was the Lions' third leading scorer (10.9 ppg) and fourth leading rebounder (2.9 rpg).

Grinde led Spring Grove in three categories - blocked shots (24), hustle points (81) and steals (2.5 spg). He ranked third in the conference in thefts and with two seasons of eligibility remaining, already ranks 13th on the Spring Grove boys all-time steals list.

He had the Lions' second best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5), shot 41% from the field overall and a good 31% from 3-point land.

The other letter winner is 6-1 senior forward Kyle Hagen(1.9 ppg, 1.7 rpg), who played in 29 of last year's 30 games and is noted for his all-out effort on the court.

Wyatt Murphy, a 6-5 senior post, played in 11 varsity games before an injury ended his season. Coach Grinde said that untimely misfortune came just as his role had been defined - about to result in increased playing time. Murphy returned for a solid summer league season.

Two players who were not in a Lion uniform last year are poised to make a significant impact as evidenced by strong performances in last Saturday's scrimmages at Hayfield.

Caleb Nerstad, a 6-1 senior guard who returns to basketball after sitting out his junior season, has been a preseason standout.

John Koch, a 6-4 transfer student, had a strong summer league season and has impressed the coaches during the first week of practice and weekend scrimmages against formidable competition.

Three others return with some varsity experience. Payton Leahyis a 5-9 senior guard who played in 16 varsity games while being the B-Team's leading scorer (14.0 ppg).

Alan Michels, a 5-10 senior guard, saw action in six varsity games. Reid Bjerke, a 6-0 sophomore guard, played in 11 contests as a freshman last winter.

Three other sophomores who return with extensive B-team experience are Matt Doering, Jonah Udstuen and Carson Gerard.

Several junior high athletes also logged minutes in B-Team games. The future appears bright for freshmen 6-0 Ty Cleven, 6-0 Tysen Grinde, 6-0 Logan Brumm, 5-8 Hunter Hollandand Caleb Griffinalong with current 6-0 eighth grader Eli Solum.

Junior Carson Gavinis back after playing B-team ball two years ago.

Competing on the court for the first time or for the first time since previous junior high years are senior 6-3 senior Michael Blackburn, juniors Sam FlatinAidan Olson and Mitchell Reynolds.

Overall, the high school roster consists of 7 seniors, 5 juniors, 4 sophomores, 6 freshmen and an eighth grader.

The scrimmages

Last Saturday, 18 Lion boys went west to Hayfield where they scrimmaged the Vikings and Wabasha-Kellogg, two veteran teams that Spring Grove defeated in last year's section tournament.

Coach Grinde said he felt "pretty good how we played" against a tall Hayfield team that brings back four starters and is ranked by Breakdown as second in the section and 15th in the state.

The coach said the performance was disappointing against a big, strong and physical W-K team. In the second scrimmage of the day, he felt conditioning may have been a factor with the Lions not yet in "game shape."

The coaches

The varsity triumvirate has 92 years of coaching experience. Al Lochner, in his 32nd season at Spring Grove, moves from junior high duty to varsity assistant while Minnesota Hall of Fame coach Tom Vix is back for his second season at Spring Grove and 34th overall.

Aric Elton (2012 and 2011 Spring Grove Male Athlete of the Year and career rebounding leader) is coaching the junior high boys for the second season along with Toby Leahy (SG Class of 2017), who coached junior high girls last year.

The SEC

While Coach Grinde knows the team may not be the conference juggernaut it has been for the past eight years, there are some talented young players and newcomers who could keep the Lions in contention for another SEC East Division championship. 

Five of the 11 SEC squads (including SG) bring back an all-conference performer, including Grand Meadow junior Colt Landers, who with Caden Grinde, is on Breakdown's preseason All-Section 1A Team.

Kingsland (17-11, 11-3 SEC), last year's East Division runner-up, is competing in the SEC West this year with Schaeffer Academy coming over to the East.

Houston (13-15, 5-9), which pushed the Lions to the wire in the section quarterfinal, appears to be a challenger for the East Division crown with 6-1 All-SEC senior Alex VanGundy, who averaged 17 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists last winter.

Mikkel Schutte, a 6-2 senior, led the SEC in rebounding with 11 per game. The first Hurricane-Lion matchup comes in the first week.

The schedule

While playing in the Iowa football state championship game, Waukon has rescheduled the basketball game versus Spring Grove from Dec. 3 to Jan. 20.

The 25-game schedule includes 14 SEC games - two each versus East Division rivals and one each against West Division squads - plus 11 non-conference contests.

A new feature this year is the SEC Showcase on Saturday, Dec. 21 on both courts at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester. Every boys and girls team in the SEC will play a conference game there on that date (except a non-SEC game for the Glenville-Emmons boys). The Lion girls (2 p.m.) and the Lion boys (4 p.m.) will both face Randolph that day.

The Lions will again play in Decorah at the Dec. 14 Iowa/Minnesota Border Battle. The SG boys will face Crestwood (Cresco, IA) at noon after the Lion girls' game with Crestwood at 9:30 a.m.

The boys will play in the Feb. 1 Wisconsin/Minnesota Border Battle at La Crosse with a 10 a.m. tipoff against Stratford. 

There are also two neutral site holiday games at Rushford versus Class AA Dover-Eyota on Dec. 27 (5 p.m.) and Nevis on Dec. 28 (1 p.m.)

Other non-league games include home matchups with Lansing Kee, Cannon Falls, La Crescent-Hokah and Fillmore Central,

There are non-conference road trips to Waukon, Decorah and Rushford-Peterson.

The start

The boys open with three conference clashes - at home on Monday, Dec. 2 against Mabel-Canton and an early showdown at Houston on Friday, Dec. 6.

The Lions are back home against Lanesboro on Friday, Dec. 13 before Saturday's noon border battle at Decorah versus Crestwood.

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Lions the Last 7 seasons - SG boys Basketball

2019 25-5 (14-0 SEC, 1st East)

2018 24-6 (13-0 SEC, 1st East)

2017 24-4 (13-0 SEC, 1st East)

2016 28-2 (20-0 SEC, 1st East)

2015 24-4 (19-1 SEC, 1st East)

2014 25-4 (18-0 SEC, 1st East)

2013 21-7 (17-1 SEC, 1st East)

total 172-32 (114-2 SEC) 

conference championships – 21 (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015,2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2009,2008, 2006, 2005, 2004, 1979,1978, 1973, 1957, 1956, 1954, 1952 

sub-sect./dist. championships – 5 (2019, 2016, 2008, 1978, 1954)

section Championships – 2019

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Spring Grove Boys Basketball 2020

*conference games --home games bold/approximately 7:15 p.m. unless noted

Mon.    12-02   Mabel-Canton*.

Fri.       12-06   at Houston*

Fri.      12-13   Lanesboro*                             

Sat       12-14 #            vs. Crestwood at Decorah 12 P.M.(Iowa/Minnesota Border Battle)

Tues.    12-17   at Schaeffer Academy*

Sat.      12-21 #            vs. Randolph* at Rochester 4 P.M.

Fri.       12-27   vs. Dover-Eyota at Rushford 5 P.M.

Sat.      12-28   vs. Nevisat Rushford 1 P.M.

Fri.       01-03   at Lyle/Pacelli* (at Austin)

Tues.    01-07   at Decorah 7:30 P.M.

Thur.   01-09   at Rushford-Peterson 7:30 P.M.

Fri.      01-10   Glenville-Emmons*

Tues     01-14   Houston*

Fri.       01-17   at Grand Meadow*

Mon.    01-20   at Waukon 7:30 P.M

Tues.    01-21   at Mabel-Canton*

Fri.      01-24   LeRoy-Ostrander*

Mon.    01-27   Lansing Kee

Fri.      01-31   Schaeffer Academy*               

Wisconsin/Minnesota Border Battle at La Crosse

Sat.      02-01   vs. Stratford 10 A.M.                

Mon.    02-03   Fillmore Central

Tues.    02-04   at Lanesboro*

Fri.       02-07   at Kingsland*

Sat.      02-15 #            Cannon Falls 6 P.M.

Mon.    02-17   La Crescent-Hokah