Apr. 16—For the last three seasons, everyone knew that Waseca had a good boys basketball team.
In that span, the Bluejays won 78 of 86 games and made two trips to the state-championship game, breaking a 103-year drought for the program this season by claiming the Class AA trophy Saturday at Target Center.
But with a strong group of seniors, headlined by Ryan Dufault, Andrew Morgan and Kyreese Willingham, having played their final high-school games, the Bluejays are likely to take a step back to rebuild next season, leaving a void for other programs to step forward.
So, who will be the teams in the area with a chance to go to a state tournament next season and possibly leave with the championship trophy?
There are some teams that quickly come to mind.
Mankato West has most of the team returning, having made the first appearance in the state tournament since 2009. Four starters will be back —Mekhi Collins, Buom Jock, Louis Magers and Brady Haugum — and others will have to step up, especially on the perimeter.
But as always, Mankato East, with B.J. Omot, Poulrah Gong and Sean Clement returning, will be right there, too. Marshall always seems to have something to say in Section 2AAA, also.
The Maple River boys were 18-2 this season, with the only losses to a talented Blue Earth Area team, which was senior-heavy. The Eagles will have four starters back and likely be the favorites to win Section 2AA.
St. Clair was 14-3 and lost to Sleepy Eye St. Mary's in the section finals, and most of that team returns, including high-scoring guard Connor Andree. However, longtime coach Charlie Freitag has resigned, and the Cyclones have been bumped up to Class AA next season, making the task much tougher.
It will be interesting to see if the Waterville-Elysian-Morristown boys can continue the momentum built by winning eight of nine games before losing in double-overtime to St. Clair in the subsection finals. The Bucs' top weapons — Domanik Paulson and Brady Nutter — will be back but need some of the younger players to develop.
The Mankato East girls were one of only three teams to defeat Big Nine Conference champion Rochester Mayo. The core of the team — Mackenzie Schweim, Lexi Karge and Peyton Stevermer — will be back, continuing the improvement of that program, which has gone from 5-21 to 9-17 to 12-15 to 14-6 in the last four seasons.
There are other teams that will emerge as, hopefully, we get back to a normal schedule involving more nonconference play, without the masks and other virus protocols. The conference-only schedules didn't allow us the chance to see how teams from different leagues compared until they met in the playoffs.
It was another great season of high school basketball and can't wait to get started again in November.
Chad Courrier is the Free Press sports editor. He's at 507-344-6353, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ChadCourrier.