A core group from St. Louis Park’s boys’ basketball team started playing together in fourth grade. Eight years later and several inches taller, they are still playing together and in serious contention for a conference title.
A few more players have been added to that core over the years. In all, St. Louis Park boasts 11 seniors on its roster, an unusually high number for a high school team. And while that more than likely means a rebuilding year in the immediate future, the Orioles are enjoying the ride this season.
They defeated Fridley 87-82 on Friday and were 13-1 entering Tuesday’s rematch with Cooper, the only team in the conference to defeat St. Louis Park this season.
“It’s kind of special what they’re doing,” coach Dave Breitenbucher said. “We haven’t had a team that’s getting this much recognition in a long time so it’s a lot of fun.”
Often the number of players from a grade will shrink as it reaches graduation. Playing time disputes, injuries or strong underclassmen can sometimes bump players from a roster. But the majority of the group has stuck together, and it’s reaping the rewards of individual and group experience.
The players grew up together in the program, which means Breitenbucher, in his third year, is a relative newcomer. When he was hired for their sophomore year, it took time to form what is now a cohesive relationship.
Two of those seniors are the team’s main scoring threats: DJ Pollard (18.7 points per game) and Kashif Hayes (17.9). The next closest player averaged less than seven points per contest entering Friday’s matchup with Fridley.
“You always have DJ and Kashif as stable guys when it comes to scoring, but you just don’t know who the next [highest-scoring] guy is going to be,” Breitenbucher said. “That’s kind of fun. I enjoy that.”
Pollard is 6-foot-3 and roughly 175 pounds with long limbs. He plays primarily guard to get ready for college, where he’d be undersized at a forward position. Pollard plans to attend Northern State next year, in Aberdeen, S.D.
Hayes is a shorter, lefthanded guard with quick feet and a smooth jump shot. He is undecided on college but says there are several schools interested in him: Long Island University, Bemidji State and Missouri State-West Plains junior college. He might also play another year of AAU, he said.
Both players are good ballhandlers and contribute to the team’s fast-break offense.
They are not shy about telling a teammate — even if it’s the other star — to look for better shots.
“We’re comfortable enough with each other to tell each other that and I think we know when to give each other the ball, like in which situation to be the most successful,” Pollard said.
Hayes and Pollard didn’t team up as early as the rest of the group, but they each played varsity as sophomores and know each other’s strengths. “We’re just so used to it, we’ve been playing with each other since eighth grade, so the chemistry is there,” Hayes said. “And then our teammates feed off us and we make them a lot better.”
Last year the Orioles didn’t start any seniors all year and finished fourth in the conference. But they bowed out in the first round of section playoffs.
Still, the group of then-juniors looked forward to this year as an opportunity to go further, and each member of the class spent the offseason honing his game, Breitenbucher said.
“We’re capable of going very far this year,” Hayes said. “We can hang with the best teams in the state.”
Derek Wetmore is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.