St. Francis boys’ basketball coach Ryan Hauge knew public perception about his team was less than positive after graduating 11 seniors from last season’s Class 4A state tournament team.

But confidence swelled within the program. The junior varsity lost just one game. And the next wave of players worked hard to be ready for their jump to the varsity this season.

As a result, the Saints (21-8) are marching back into the state tournament.

They open play at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Target Center against top-seeded Champlin Park (29-0).

“This is the best team I’ve seen since I’ve been coaching,” Hauge said of Champlin Park. “And go figure, we draw them right out of the gate.”

Both teams have found success with a team-first approach.

Four St. Francis players average double figures in scoring: Blake Moreno (15 points per game), Ethan Scheuring (14.2), Robbie Whitney (11.7) and Sam Scardigli (10.5).

The team overwhelms opponents with depth, press defense and toughness.

“We’re kind of nasty,” Hauge said. “We’d win a street fight in a lot of cases.”

Guard Hunter Trautman, who played quarterback for the football team, embodies the team’s hard-nosed style with his tenacious defense.

But the Saints aren’t just about brawn.

Whitney provides a strong all-around game, while fellow guard Scardigli hurts opponents with his shooting prowess. Yet another guard, Tanner Carlson, manages games well from the point.

The Saints are athletic, too. Moreno, a 6-6 forward who excelled as a defensive end and tight end on the football field, can “guard opposing point guards in the open court,” Hauge said.

Confident in his team from the start, Hauge said the group has grown through victory and loss. A tough nonconference schedule brought games against Hopkins and Roseville. The latter ended in a six-point loss.

Watching the film, players saw how close they were to making critical plays.

St. Francis rolled through January with a 10-0 record. Then injury and tougher competition resulted in four losses over the final six regular season games.

But the Saints are healthy, hungry and undaunted about playing the tournament favorite on opening day.

“They would win a seven-game series,” Hauge said. “But this is one game.”