The 2014-2015 season was a historic one for the Eden Valley-Watkins boys basketball program.
The Eagles won a school-record 25 games and came one game from the school’s first-ever state tournament appearance, losing 50-42 to eventual state champion Melrose Area in the Section 6AA final.
Last year’s EV-W boys were led by the then-senior trio of Bret Mattice, Jared Streit and Austin Schlangen.
Mattice, a lefty perimeter-threat and attacking guard, became the Eagles’ all-time leading scorer last season, while Streit — the program’s all-time leading rebounder — and Schlangen provided plenty of muscle inside.
After the heights of last year’s historic season and the departure of such a heralded graduating class, it was reasonable to wonder how the 2015-2016 iteration of the Eagles would fare.
So far this season, the Eagles have answered that question with a polite, “Quite well, thank you very much.”
Through 19 games, the Eagles are neck-and-neck with last year’s record-setting team: the 2015-2016 team is 17-2 through 19 games, the same mark as last season.
This year’s EV-W boys also boasted a 13-game winning streak that was snapped Monday by Minnewaska Area, who are 15-4, with an impressive win over Melrose (17-2).
The Eagles are undefeated in the Central Minnesota Conference and on the road this season, all with a wildly different playing style — a reinvention that EV-W head coach Adam Langer knew would be necessary this off-season.
“I know there were a lot of questions coming in this year, losing our career-leading scorer, career-leading rebounder, all the size we lost,” Langer said.
But Langer knew this crew of kids well and knew that the Eagles could surprise some teams this season.
“I expected us to be better than a lot of people thought we would,” Langer said.
The Eagles returned point guard Reese Jansen, who piloted the EV-W offense last season as a sophomore, and Jared Streit’s younger brother Jacob, a junior wing who joined Jansen as a then-sophomore in the starting lineup last season.
Senior guards Travis Thielen and DeShaun James and senior wing Greg Lux also saw significant minutes last year and are back to buoy the squad.
The need for speed
Langer knew that this year’s Eagles were not going to be a bruising, patient, half-court team: these Eagles are fast, relentless and savage on the defensive side, and Langer only needed his players to buy in to a reinvention for them to soar.
“We had to change the way we played quite a bit,” Langer said, adding that he was confident in this group because of how well they played together growing up.
“They caught on so quickly that they just kind of took it and rolled with it,” he said.
Langer describes the reinvention as a desire to become pesky on both sides of the ball.
“Our goal is pretty much to make teams uncomfortable on both sides of the floor,” he said. “Defensively, we put a lot more pressure on teams — we’re picking them up at full court, trapping them and pressing them. … Offensively, we’re pushing the ball a lot more.”
What this year’s Eagles lack in size they make up for in speed and versatility.
“We don’t really have a true post, but all the guys can run and all the guys can shoot,” Langer said. “… It’s tough for teams to defend when you have four guys who are good 3-point shooters.”
Jacob Streit — the nominal post and the team’s leading rebounder — has transitioned from a tertiary piece to an offensive focal point.
“Last year and even the year before, he was basically out there to hit open shots; this year that’s the weakest part of his game,” Langer said. “He’s grown a couple inches and he’s got a lot more confidence this year than last year. … He’s so tough of an offensive threat.”
Langer mentioned a moment in EV-W’s Jan. 16 win over Watertown-Mayer as particularly eye-opening — and representative of Streit’s growth as a player.
“Against Watertown he attacked the rim and had a dunk,” Langer said. “I’ve never seen him dunk in practice and he did it in a game.”
A returning ‘general’
Jansen, the Eagles’ other returning starter, has used last year’s record-setting campaign to propel himself to new heights this season, including setting the school’s career assist mark Friday in Paynesville.
“Last year, for him, it was biggest for him to get that experience on that stage,” Langer said. “He’s our floor general, our leader. He gets people where they need to be. … He’s taken that next step as a leader on and off the floor.”
Langer has been impressed by Jansen and Streit’s acceptance of a new, higher-scoring role in the Eagle offense.
“This year, (Jansen) realized that he’s going to be one of the leading scorers, same as Jacob,” he said.
Though there are five regular season games remaining on the schedule, Langer said he’s kept an eye on the playoff picture in hopes that the Eagles can make another post-season push.
“I always kind of look ahead because I want to be prepared for whoever we play,” he said.
And this year’s path will be tricky: Eden Valley-Watkins is one of three teams in Section 5AA-West with 17 wins, as the Eagles are joined by Rockford (17-4) and Annandale (17-2), with Watertown-Mayer (14-7) and Maple Lake (12-8) also in the mix.
“Our subsection is just loaded,” Langer said. “It’s going to be tough.”
But if this year’s Eagles have proven anything, it’s this: they’re up for a challenge.