This isn’t Tom Ihnot’s first go-round at the helm of the St. Thomas Academy basketball team.

It’s just the oddest.

He spent the better part of two decades as the team’s head coach after arriving at the school in 1976. He slid over to an assistant role in 1996, when Mike Sjoberg, Ihnot’s former assistant, took over the program.

But Sjoberg has had continued struggles from complications after foot surgery a year ago. In the last month, it has gotten to the point that he can no longer serve as the team’s day-to-day coach, Ihnot said.

So here’s Ihnot, in his 46th year coaching, looking to guide the Cadets (16-8, 10-5 Metro east) through the treacherous Class 3A, Section 4 playoffs, which start Wednesday.

Nothing has gone as expected for sixth-ranked St. Thomas this winter, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing, Ihnot said. After all, not many are expecting the Cadets to reach the state tournament.

“Hey, anything can happen,” the coach said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re a good team. We have some really good kids, and we believe we can win this section.”

‘Next man up’

What has defined the Cadets this season, Ihnot said, is their ability to step up in key moments.

St. Thomas gets balanced scoring from four players — seniors Ryan Jacobsen, Andrew Mayleben and Kai Endahl and junior Nate Chaffee — each averaging 9.3 points or more per game. Jacobsen’s 18.8 points per game leads the team.

The Cadets ride those four players hard.

“They probably all play 30-plus minutes a game,” Ihnot said. “Ryan and Kai have really led us in scoring most of the year, but any of them could put up 18 to 20 [points] on a given night, and that’s a huge boost. It’s been that ‘next man up’ mentality.”

It’s an unselfish group, the coach said, its biggest strengths being ball movement and passing.

Still high hopes

The presence of six seniors on the team triggered high preseason expectations. Ihnot said the team felt a Metro East conference title defense was a realistic expectation, with a trip to state being the ultimate goal.

The league title chase didn’t play out that way for the Cadets.

They defeated Metro East champ Hastings 74-61 on Dec. 13 but lost 76-69 in the rematch Feb. 6. St. Thomas also split games with No. 8 Hill-Murray, No. 9 Simley, Tartan and Mahtomedi.

“Just a little too up and down,” Ihnot said. The Cadets had won eight of 10 heading into their final regular-season games Friday and Saturday. (Those games were played after this article went to press.)

Ihnot said he feels the team is starting to peak at the right time and that the Cadets are going to need their best to get through section play. The No. 2 team in Class 3A, St. Paul Johnson, will be the top seed. And Hill-Murray and Simley join St. Thomas as the other top-10 teams in the bracket.

It’s impossible to predict how a season will end up, Ihnot said. His current role is proof of that.

“Every season has its surprises,” he said.

The Cadets are hoping for one more.