Losing four starters to graduation would gut most high school basketball teams. When the lone returner is senior center Chance Stewart, a Class B all-state honorable mention last season, this year’s Sturgis squad must still be taken seriously.
The Trojans, which begin the year tonight against visiting Three Rivers, produced a 14-9 overall record and 7-7 mark in Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference play. If Sturgis wants to chase down a fourth straight district championship, the plan of attack, at least offensively, is pretty straightforward:
Find Stewart; pass to Stewart.
At a recent practice, head coach Keith Kurowski told his guys he wanted Stewart taking roughly 70 percent of the team’s shots. The 6-foot-5 playmaker averaged around 20 points and 18 rebounds per game last winter and can score from anywhere on the floor and handle the ball with ease. It was a major shot in the arm for a program that thought the Western Michigan University-committed quarterback might choose to graduate early and enroll at WMU for the spring semester. Stewart opted to finish his senior year at Sturgis and compete in basketball and baseball instead.
“We will go as far as Chance takes us,” Kurowski said. “One of the most talented players I have ever coached. He will have the green light offensively and has worked hard at expanding his range out to the 3-point line. I want him taking three-five 3-pointers a game for us to go along with his outstanding low post play. He truly will be a dual inside/outside threat for us.
“Perhaps his greatest strength lies in his leadership abilities as well as his competitive nature, as he dislikes losing. He leads by example every day and sets the bar high so that everyone else simply has no choice but to try and ascend to his level. He is the best leader I have ever coached.”
Figuring out the rest of the roles in short order is the priority number one for Kurowski, who said it is going to take a few games for the dust to settle.
What he has at his disposal are three other seniors in 6-4 forward Nick Rehm, 5-9 guard Core Baldwin and 5-10 guard Lonnie Wright. The junior class includes guards Jacob Cline (6-0), Jack Scheske (6-1) and Andrew Airbood (6-2). Sophomores Tristen Stewart, a 6-1 guard, and forward Ryan Schuller (6-7) and freshman forward Matthew Polzin (6-4) round out the roster.
Athleticism, size and speed are abundant this season. Experience, however, is not.
“The potential is there,” Kurowski said, “… but we will be a major work in progress until it all comes together. We will just be on a steep learning curve early on with all the new faces trying to adjust to varsity level competition, as well as learning their roles and how to play together.”
Though this team is “one of the youngest and most inexperienced” of Kurowski’s six-year tenure with the Trojans, he believes an eight-nine-man rotation is feasible with perhaps all of them starting at some point.
There are enough capable bodies to go small and quick or switch to a bigger lineup.
Scheske earned a varsity letter as a sophomore and expectations are high this year.
“[He] will be counted on for his ball handling and shooting from long range,” Kurowski said. “He needs to have a breakout year for us if we are going to have any real success in the conference and in the postseason.”
Cutting back on turnovers (15 per contest in 2012-13) and improving on the offensive glass (seven rebounds per game on that end last year) can greatly help the Trojans, which averaged 50 points per game, overcome a loss of scoring. Sturgis held opponents to 46 points per game, shot 69 percent from the free-throw line and 43 percent (381-for-881) from the field.
Kurowski further explained that Airgood brings dependability, Kline is tough and thrives on defense, Tristen Stewart can play both guard positions and could develop into a starter and Schuler has been a “pleasant surprise” and has a “soft touch around the basket.”
Polzin’s role is expected to expand with his ability to play facing the basket or with his back to the goal.
As for the rest of the seniors, Baldwin, a Three Rivers transfer, has a ton of potential at point guard, Wright, a Constantine import, is a high-energy player, press-breaker and overall disruptor on the defensive end, and Rehm is another “nice surprise” who has made great strides since last year.
“We must continue to maintain a strong defensive identity, especially early on with unproven scoring,” Kurwoski said, “and take care of the basketball if we are going to achieve some of the goals we want to achieve. I have thoroughly enjoyed coaching this group thus far as they seem eager to learn the nuances of my system and have worked very hard in practice.”