Creating a blueprint

One glance at the Our Redeemer’s Christian School girls basketball roster and its biggest challenge becomes clear.

The Knights are loaded with young talent, but many players lack experience at the varsity level. ORCS has one sophomore, nine freshmen, two eighth-graders and two seventh-graders to complement the lone senior and two juniors.

After losing five seniors to graduation last year, and with three others not returning this season, the Knights’ focus is building up the younger players to establish a strong nucleus of talent for the next few years.

“I’m excited about it because it’s given us a really good chance to go back to the very basics and get them trained the way we want them to be so we can go through a progression stage,” ORCS coach Kory Nelson said.

ORCS does have returners with varsity experience, led by senior Jenny Skees. The 5-foot-7 point guard is a dual threat with her ability to drive to the basket and knock down shots from behind the arc. Now, Skees has the added responsibility of being ORCS’ leader on the court.

“The senior leadership is huge on the court,” Nelson said. “She’s got to be able to control the flow of the game for us and she has to be able to be a little patient and get girls into spots to start our offense.”

Juniors Gabi Boeckel and McKensie Popinga and freshman Morgan Olson also played extended minutes for the Knights last year, when they finished 16-7 after losing their opening-round game to Rugby in the Region 6 tournament. Skees and Olson started last season and will again this year, along with Boeckel, Popinga and freshman forward Emily Maasjo when ORCS opens its season against North Shore-Plaza today at the Sawyer Invite.

The Knights won’t be the most experienced team on the court and they also won’t be the tallest. Popinga (5-10) is ORCS’ tallest player. ORCS’ starting lineup averages 5-7.

“The main challenge is our height,” Skees said. “We’re a pretty short team, but we’ll make it up with quickness and defense.”

With the lack of height, the Knights will look to push the tempo on both sides of the court. ORCS has plenty of speed that it will utilize in both its fast-break offense and its full-court defense.

“That will be the big thing to keep the ball moving up the court,” Olson said. “We need to make sure opponents don’t get the ball down low so we don’t get burned down there.”

The Knights are picked to finish fifth in District 12 behind Bishop Ryan, Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood, Des Lacs-Burlington and Glenburn. That hasn’t stopped Nelson from setting the bar high for his young squad.

“We’ve set a goal to get back to the region tournament,” he said. “I think it’s very attainable for us, but right now we’re just trying to get through these first couple game. I expect them all to play and compete. I expect us to win at least 50 percent of our games and I do expect us to come in as one of the top four seeds in the district going into the tournament.”

Nelson said he was happy with how the team performed in some of the summer camps it attended. He also said many of the younger girls showed up at open gyms and have put in a lot of work over the offseason, creating excitement for the upcoming schedule.

“We have a lot of good players coming up,” Skees said. “It will be fun to see what they can do.”

Mike Kraft covers high school athletics and hockey. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.