After graduating eight seniors including four starters from last year's fourth-place team at the State A Boys' Basketball Tournament, Aberdeen Roncalli fans did not have high expectations.
Roncalli earned a share of the Northeast Conference title and won district and region championships on the way to a return trip to the state tournament. The Cavaliers (15-7) will play Chamberlain (20-3) in the opening round of the state tournament at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Sioux Falls Arena.
"There were zero expectations from people outside the team because we graduated all those seniors," said Roncalli coach Todd Neuendorf. "When you have a good group, everybody says, 'You should be at the state tournament.' When you have a group that everybody says, 'We'll see how the pieces work together,' it's less pressure. It (this season) was a lot of fun."
A key to the team's success was the return of senior post Ross Barton, who earned first-team All-NEC honors this season. Barton, who averages 18 points and 11 rebounds per game, has emerged as a team leader. The Cavaliers have two more seniors, Joe Reynen and Trevor Zens.
"Ross has been such a good leader. At one point, he was on the court with a freshman, two sophomores and a junior. He's had to bring these guys along and they love him. He'll bark at them, but he wants them to toe the line. He does it in practice and in games," said Neuendorf.
The Cavaliers start Barton (6-feet 5-inches), Kory Schwan (6-2), Kendal Deutsch (6-1), Zach Andera (6-2) and Dominic King (6-6). Chamberlain will counter with Tyson Langdeau (5-9), Traxton Priebe (6-1), Colton Anderson (6-4), Skyler Bertram (6-2) and Gage Basting (6-2). The leading scorer is Langdeau and the top rebounder is Basting. The Cubs are riding a 12-game winning streak.
"We've really evolved as the year went along," said Chamberlain coach Allan Bertram. "You want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the year. As the season progressed, we've gotten better every game. We were able to pull some close games out at the end of the year (like Miller 50-48 in the district final). There's always room for improvement."
Roncalli has a height advantage, but both squads will utilize seven to eight players.
"Chamberlain is a little bit like we were last year," said Neuendorf. "They're not big. They have a six-four kid, but he stays on the perimeter. They are athletic and like to get up and down fast. They get their threes off dribble penetration. When you help defensively on the dribble, they kick it to the corner for a shot. We'll have to contain dribble penetration."
Although Chamberlain is the number two seed and Roncalli is number seven, the Cubs are not taking the Cavaliers lightly.
"Roncalli has a great basketball tradition," said Bertram. "The Barton kid is the heart and soul of the team. The King kid at six-six has a mid-range jumper and they have three aggressive guards with Schwan and Deutsch and Andera. They have a very nice basketball team and are capable of doing damage at state."
Both squads have histories at the state tournament as Roncalli has qualified for 11 tourneys and Chamberlain for nine. The Cubs have recently played at state in 2000, 2006, 2007 and 2008. The Cavaliers are making their fifth appearance since 2000 including the last three in a row.