Winning is fun, and the Kenyon-Wanamingo boys basketball team knows all about it

Jan. 21—KENYON — When it comes to sports, no one likes to lose. After a dry spell that probably seemed to last forever, the Kenyon-Wanamingo boys basketball team is starting to have some fun.

It was in the movie "Bull Durham" that pitcher Ebby Calvin 'Nuke' LaLoosh said: "I love winning, man. ... You hear what I'm saying, it's like better than losing."

There was a time when the Kenyon-Wanamingo boys didn't do much winning. In a six-season span from 2013-19, the Knights won less than 10 games total.

During Brent Lurken's first year as head coach, the Knights were 1-25 in 2018-19, the third straight one-win season for the program. Since then, Lurken, now in his fifth season, has slowly turned the program around. A year ago the Knights were 21-7 and this season they are 10-5.

"It's been kind of fun to get a group of kids who come through the program like this," he said. "They start to understand what we're looking to do as a program as far as playing tough team defense, man-to-man, and offensively being aggressive and attacking the basket and sharing the basketball."

The players have bought into Lurken's system and the results have been starting to show. The victories have been piling up, too, much to the players' delight.

"Our whole team is having fun," senior Alex Lee said.

Lee said Lurken has been a stabilizing influence for the Knights.

"He's always willing to help us out if we need something," Lee said. "He's in the school so if we have an open hour and want to put up some shots, he's willing to do that."

The players have been more than willing to put in the extra work during the season and in the offseason.

"We tend to work a lot in the gym, weekends too," senior AJ Higginbottom said. "We get a lot of shots up and get in a whole bunch of extra work."

The Knights lost several of their top players and scorers from a year ago. They have excelled again this year despite a large cast of newcomers.

"A major thing is good team chemistry," Higginbottom said. "We've been playing a lot together for a couple of years, but this is the first year at the varsity level."

Three big factors for the Knights this season have been the team's man-to-man defense, strong passing and balanced scoring.

K-W doesn't feature much size, with most of its players in the 6-foot to 6-2 range. But the Knights' top six or seven are all quick and interchangeable on defense. That allows them to do lots of switching on defense, which can break the flow of an offense.

A year ago the Knights had a 6-10 player in the middle to anchor the defense and alter lots of shots. This year the team is relying more on quickness, team defense and versatility.

"On defense we're all very active with our hands," Lee said. "We put a lot of effort into practice all of the time and we all just enjoy the game a lot."

The return of Cal Luebke, a physical player, has also aided the defense. He had a knee injury that sidelined him for the entire 2021-22 season.

Offensively, Lurken said the Knights feature a number of players who have good court vision and are looking to get their teammates the best shot possible. The team's strong passing ability has led to a balanced scoring attack.

Lee, Colton Steberg, Zach Mason and Higginbottom all average double figures in scoring. In most games the Knights have at least three players score in double figures and as many as six have scored 10-plus points in a game.

"We never have one person who scores a bunch of points," Lee said. "It seems like almost every game we have a different high scorer. Everyone on the team can be a great scorer and I think that helps us out, too."

The Knights also have a big signature victory this season. They nipped two-time defending Class A state champion Hayfield 59-58 at home on Jan. 10.

"It was a huge win to be able to beat the defending state champs," Lee said. "We were looking forward to that game for a while. I think it gives us huge confidence. We know we can play really well, we just have to keep up the teamwork and continue to play hard."

One of the team's goals is to be able to compete for an East Division title in the Gopher Conference. That now seems achievable with the win over Hayfield. K-W is 7-2 in the Gopher Conference and Hayfield is 6-1. The two will meet again in Hayfield on Feb. 7.

Another lofty goal is to make a deep run in the Section 1A tournament. The field is loaded with four teams currently ranked in the top 12 in the state: Goodhue (No. 4), Hayfield (7), Lyle/Austin Pacelli (11) and Spring Grove (12).

"When it comes playoff time, if we play like we can, we have a shot to beat anybody," Lurken said. "That's a pretty special feeling for a team when you know if you play up to your potential that you can play with anyone in the section."