To those in the know — the Eden Prairie basketball team, its coaches and fans and those across the metro who closely follow the youth basketball scene — it was no surprise. But to the rest of the basketball community, it was a result that required a double-take. Perhaps a triple-take.
Eden Prairie 71, Minnehaha Academy 48.
Granted, Eden Prairie is a Class 4A team, two classes higher than the Redhawks. But the defending 2A champions were less than a week removed from a nationally televised victory over Apple Valley, the 2017 4A champ, and had followed that up with a convincing victory over another 4A power, Park Center.
Eden Prairie, on the other hand, was led by a bunch of sophomores and had two key seniors still rounding into shape after playing key roles in the football team’s 6A championship run. The Dec. 12 game was a stunning declaration that, young or not, the Eagles were ready for the big time.
“We talk a lot about playing with energy, and we just had a lot more energy than they did,” Eden Prairie coach David Flom said.
The victory was just one of a number of impressive ones this season by Eden Prairie en route to an 8-1 start through Wednesday’s 69-57 victory over Class 2A stalwart Minneapolis North, and a brief stint atop the Class 4A rankings. The one defeat is nothing to be ashamed of, an 86-80 overtime loss to Lakeville North.
“I thought we’d be pretty good in March, but we’re a little better right now than I anticipated,” Flom said. “I thought it would take a little longer.”
Not so for this group of underclassmen, which includes guards Drake Dobbs and John Henry and forwards Connor Christensen and Austin Andrews. Dobbs, Christensen and Andrews were varsity regulars as freshman and played AAU summer basketball together for DI Minnesota’s 15-U team while Henry balanced baseball and basketball commitments. That basketball passion has helped develop their skills beyond those of typical sophomores. What makes Eden Prairie dangerous is that those skills complement each other, giving the Eagles enviable balance and versatility.
Henry, a 6-4 wing with a smooth outside shot, “could end up being the best shooter we’ve ever had,” Flom said. Andrews is a well-schooled force down low despite being just 6-5. Dobbs is the wizard, a natural scorer who can take over a game at any time. And the 6-6 Christensen is the glue that binds them, versatile on both ends of the floor and a natural leader with a competitive edge that ignites the entire team.
“Connor brings a ton of energy,” said senior Kyler Kluge, who, with fellow senior D.J. Johnson, commands younger teammates’ attention and respect as state champion football players. “I’ve never played with anyone who talks as much as he does. But it’s never smack. He just wants to win.”
All four sophomores are averaging in double figures, paced by Dobbs at 18.8 points and Andrews at 18.6.
But with youth comes occasional inconsistency. That’s where veteran leadership from the 6-1 Kluge, who will play football at St. Cloud State next year, and Johnson, a speedy 5-8 guard who’s still entertaining Division II football offers, come in.
“The sophomores are getting a lot of accolades, and they should, but Kyler Kluge and D.J. Johnson have been outstanding for us from a toughness and leadership standpoint,” Flom said. “They’re so highly competitive and focused.”
Christensen said that having the two seniors as part of the Eagles’ rotation keeps the team grounded.
“They’re great role models,” he said. “They know what it’s like to win, and they have the winning mentality that we need. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.”
Flom is watching carefully for potential problems that could derail a season. For example, with just six players in the regular rotation, he’s built in as much downtime as the schedule will allow.
“They play so much and push themselves so hard, when we get time off, we make sure to take it,” he said. “I want them to take more breaks than they think they need.”
“It’s good to take a break,” Christensen said. “All that basketball can be pretty tiring, so he likes to do things to keep us fresh.”
A sound strategy, considering the Eagles’ obvious long-term potential.
“This is by far the most talent we’ve had,” Flom said. “From a big-picture standpoint, it’s about the culture we’re creating, playing basketball with toughness and playing together. When you take that and throw in really high-skilled guys, it’s exciting.”