COLUMBUS — Young and inexperienced; that’s how you can describe the Columbus prep boys basketball team.
The Cardinals lost Peyton Henry, Noah Coughlin, Michael Rowe and Tanner Perry to graduation. Connor Manthey was expected to return after starting as a junior, but will miss the season due to a football injury.
“We’re going to have to find an identity quickly,” Columbus head coach Ben Schambow said. “We’re out five starters from last year. We’re going to have to rely on guys who haven’t played a ton of varsity minutes.
“Hopefully, they learned a lot playing behind guys like Noah Coughlin and Tanner Perry from last year.”
Sophomore Ben Emler (7.2 points, 4.5 rebounds) returns for the Cardinals after playing significant minutes last season.
“We’ve got a really good post player in Ben Emler who’s a sophomore this year,” Schambow said. “He’s going to have to play like a senior.”
He will be joined by seniors Bryce Miller and Trey Hensler and juniors Adam Zahn and Trent Casper. All of them averaged less than four points a game.
“We’ve got some guards that are going to have to shoot the ball well,” Schambow said.
With the added pressure, Schambow said he’s liked what he’s seen so far.
“I’ll tell you what, this year has been a lot of fun so far in practice because they’re very competitive kids,” he said. “They’re very coachable, which is always my number one thing I look for in players. I think they understand the conference itself didn’t lose a lot of seniors or better players from last year.
“We understand we’re going to be going up against a lot of high competition. I don’t think we’re afraid it or we’re going to back down just because some of those guys didn’t log a ton of minutes last year. I think they’re ready to try and figure out who they are and play as hard as they can, and let the chips fall where they may.”
The one problem Schambow sees with this year’s Columbus team will be the size. Emler is 6-foot-5, but he’s the team’s only player taller than 6-2. Emler will start at center while Vujnovich (6-2) and Casper (6-1) are forwards and Kalafut (6-1) is a guard.
“Size is a huge concern for us,” Schambow said. “We’re going to have to be able to move the ball extremely well. We’re going to have to shoot the ball very consistently and hopefully turn up the defensive intensity to try to play the game at our tempo.”
Coughlin and Perry were each first-team All-Capitol North Conference selections, and along with the other departed players contributed 90 percent of Columbus’ scoring last season, which helped the Cardinals average 65 points a game.
“The guys will have a lot of minutes to earn and holes to fill,” Schambow said. “We’ll have a lot of depth at the guard position to keep teams honest guarding the perimeter.”
The Cardinals finished 6-4 in the Capitol North last season, but with a lot of talent lost, Schambow believes his team will have its bumps and bruises fighting to be in the “middle of the pack.”
At the top of the conference he believes it will be Lakeside Lutheran, Lodi and Lake Mills.
Lakeside, which went 16-8 overall and tied Columbus at 6-4 in conference play, has a junior class that saw significant time as sophomores. Jack Monis, who averaged 11 points and 6.5 rebounds, and Will DeNoyer (11, 2.8) could position the Warriors as contenders for a Capitol North championship.
Lake Mills returns several starters a team that advanced to the WIAA Division 3 state tournament and win the conference title, going 24-3 and 9-1 in league play. Seniors Hayden Iverson, Ben Dunkleberger and JT Toepfer all return to try to help the L-Cats win a third straight Capitol North crown.
Lodi, which finished last season at 10-14 overall and 4-6 in conference play, returns several talented athletes in seniors Jackson Kolinski, Canyon Bacon and Will Richards.
With the amount of talent lost by the Cardinals, Schambow said he wants his team to “be competitive in the Capitol North.”
“We set up our non-conference schedule to hopefully be able to compete with teams like that,” Schambow said. “Starting off the year with Monona Grove, who is a top 10 division 2 team. I kind of bit off some big chunks hoping we can go into the conference season having played very, very good teams, getting them ready to battle with teams that are going to be much bigger than us.”
Schambow will have to find ways to compensate for his team’s inexperience and lack of size.
“I might have to get a little more creative on defense to give teams different looks to try to use our speed and our quickness to our advantage,” Schambow said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to play quickly.”