The time is now for the Prior Lake boys basketball team.
Can the Lakers earn their first-ever state berth as a Class 4A program? Prior Lake came close last year, losing 62-45 to Eden Prairie in the Section 2AAAA title game.
The Lakers' 25 wins were a program best (25-4). It was the first time Prior Lake played in a section title game as a Class 4A since joining the top class at the start of the 2003-04 season.
Prior Lake won back-to-back Class AA state titles in 1977 and 1978 with 24-1 and 24-4 records, respectively.
Expectations are high for Prior Lake this winter with the return of 6-foot-11 senior Dawson Garcia and senior guard Tyree Ihenacho. Both are headed to Division I programs next year; Garcia signed Nov. 20 live on CBS Sports to play at Marquette, while Ihenacho signed his national letter of intent Nov. 13 to attend University of North Dakota.
"I think we are going to have a deep team behind Dawson and Tyree," Lakers Coach Jon Miller said. "The coaching staff right now is looking for an eight-man rotation, and I believe that I have around eight to 10 varsity-ready players who will be competing for playing time."
Miller takes over for Bob Schweim, who stepped down after last season after four years leading the program. He compiled a 74-35 overall mark (50-22 in the South Suburban Conference) and a 4-4 playoff record.
Miller has over 20 years of teaching and coaching experience. He was an assistant coach to Bruce Kugath of Shakopee, who is member of the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame and a member of the 500-win club. Kugath coached the Sabers from 1993 to 2018.
Miller's goals for the Lakers are pretty straightforward: win the SSC title, the Section 2AAAA crown and the state championship.
"I believe we have the pieces in place to make a deep tournament run, and the players are buying into these goals," Miller said. "It's really an exciting time for Prior Lake basketball."
Garcia led the team in scoring last winter, averaging 27.5 points per game while pulling down 11 rebounds. Ihenacho averaged 9.3 points for the Lakers last year.
"Our strengths will obviously be Dawson and Tyree," Miller said. "Having a player of Dawson's skill set is special. He has the ability to get the rebound, move the ball up court and put pressure on the defense, and no one player in the state of Minnesota can guard him in the full court.
"Tyree has a similar skill set in space," Miller added. "He is so explosive one-on-one."
Senior forward Taylor Flaata and guard Kyle McCullough look to step into starting roles. Seniors Dylan Bair and D.J. Doyen will also be in the backcourt. Miller called junior Tommy Mestnik the best "pure shooter" on the team.
Sophomore Malcolm Jones and seniors Nate Bach and Owen Hammerstrom also figure into the rotation.
"Our biggest strength is going to be pushing the ball up the court and letting our playmakers work in space," Miller said. "We have really good shooters and slashers on the wings to take advantage of defenses that collapse and focus on Dawson and Tyree.
"We also have good chemistry, and we should be a very tough defensive team that will pressure players and force teams to take tough contested shots that will lead to fastbreak opportunities," Miller added.
The Lakers finished 16-2 in the SSC last year, runner-up to Lakeville North. Prior Lake will play three tough games before beginning the SSC season Dec. 17 at home versus Rosemount at 7 p.m.
The Lakers open the season Nov. 30 in Champlin Park taking on East Ridge in the Big 12 Classic at 4:30 p.m. Prior Lake's home opener is Dec. 5 versus Minnetonka, a section opponent, at 7 p.m.
The Lakers take on Eden Prairie Dec. 7 in the Tip-Off Classic at Hopkins High School at 5:30 p.m.