Mar. 31—In the last two seasons, the Mankato West boys basketball team won 13 games.
This season, even with a shortened schedule because of the pandemic, the Scarlets won 16 games.
And a section title.
"It was definitely a feeling of relief," senior guard Mason Ellwein said. "The last two seasons were tough, but we learned some things about ourselves and as a team. We knew we were young, but we just had to keep working and playing hard. We knew things would get better in the future."
The Scarlets (16-4) take on Richfield (15-4) in the Class AAA quarterfinals at 6:30 p.m. at Chanhassen High School. It's the first state-tournament appearance for West since 2009.
In 2019-20, the Scarlets were 7-20, but seven of the losses were by four points or less, including a playoff loss to Hutchinson. An extra basket or defensive stop would have made that record look much better.
"It's always tough on the older kids when you're in that situation," said Jeremy Drexler, in his fourth season as the West coach. "We knew we had some young talent coming up that had been working hard and deserved some varsity minutes, and we knew we were going to have some struggles.
"The big question was, would they stay motivated and get better? We had an excellent summer, despite the COVID stuff."
Ellwein said he realized in the opening game — a 75-52 win over Faribault — that there was a change in the team, which played with great energy and really focused on team defense. Drexler pointed to a road win at Owatonna in the next game, losing a 10-point lead and trailing by 5 with 7 minutes to play before rallying for a 63-58 victory.
The next big hurdle was a victory over Mankato East, the first in Drexler's tenure.
"That really boosted the guys' confidence," Drexler said.
A three-game losing streak late in the regular season, in which starting post Louis Magers was injured, didn't derail the season, like it might have in the last two seasons.
"We knew there were going to be rough patches," Ellwein said. "We just had to stay with it and stay together as a team and keep playing defense ... get back to basics."
West is led by junior Mekhi Collins, who is averaging 16.4 points and shooting 58.1% from the field. He's also averaging 7.9 rebounds, with 74 offensive boards in 20 games, and leads the team with 71 assists.
Junior Buom Jock is averaging 15.4 points and shooting 50.4% from the field, with a team-best 33 3-pointers. He's also averaging 7.3 rebounds and leads the team with 13 blocked shots.
Ellwein is averaging 14.6 points, with a team-high 98 free-throw attempts, where he's shooting 64.3%. Magers, a junior, is averaging 9.1 points and 6.9 rebounds.
"I feel like the pressure is off, now that we won the section championship," Drexler said. "We had a lot of energy, really upbeat practice (Monday). I may be way off base, but I feel like they're ready for the challenge."
Richfield is led by Lamar Grayson, one of five finalists for Mr. Basketball. Richfield, which averages 76.2 points, is coached by former Bethany Lutheran standout Omar McMillan.
Just a year ago, getting ready to play in the section championship game, Waseca's season ended abruptly because of the pandemic. That didn't happen again, but it's still on the mind of some of the players.
"I think it lingers," Waseca coach Seth Anderson said. "It was such a quick ending; there will always be 'what ifs.' But this is the senior year for most of these guys, and it's their last chance. I think they want to make the most of it."
The Bluejays (20-1), who finished second in Class AAA in 2019, will meet Morris Area/Chokio-Alberta (19-2) in the opening game of the Class AA tournament at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Chanhassen High School.
Senior center Andrew Morgan, one of five finalists for Mr. Basketball, is averaging 20.9 points and 9.8 rebounds, shooting 66.9% from the field. Morgan, who has signed with Division I North Dakota State, leads the team with 37 blocked shots.
Senior point guard Ryan Dufault, who has signed with Division I St. Thomas, is averaging 17.6 points and 7.8 assists with 54 steals. He's shooting 60.2% from the field. Senior wing Kyreese Willingham, who will be attending Minnesota State next season, is averaging 15.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists, while shooting 56.3%. He has also made 54 steals.
Matt Seberson is averaging 10.1 points and 4.5 rebounds, and Zach Hoehn is averaging 10.0 points with a team-high 64 3-pointers. Both are seniors.
Waseca played a challenging schedule to get ready for this, but the pandemic caused cancellations with Minneapolis North, Hibbing, Caledonia, Lake City and Stewartville. There were still some good tests with three games against Marshall, a couple against Blue Earth Area and a big one against Minnehaha Academy, which gave Waseca its only loss (94-66 on March 2).
"We have some big goals every year," Anderson said. "We want to win the conference every year, and getting to the state tournament is another goal. We've been able to get those two, but now, we want to get to the championship game with a chance to win it. Hopefully, we can avoid COVID and play some good basketball. Our team has a lot of confidence."
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.