Bruce Kugath of Shakopee is in his 45th season as a boys’ basketball mentor, either as an assistant or head coach. That doesn’t keep the wily veteran from still learning on a daily basis.
“This year has been a season of adjustments and change,” Kugath said.
He is in the process of trying to guide the Sabers to back-to-back Class 4A state tournament appearances. They have advanced to the state field seven of the past 15 years — winning the Class 3A crown in 2005.
“My goal as a coach, which I try to encourage the players to accept, is to be at our best at tournament time,” Kugath said. “Everything we do as a team is pointed in that direction.”
This season has come with more obstacles than in the past for Kugath, his staff and players. It started with the Sabers making the switch from the Missota Conference to the more powerful South Suburban Conference. The 10-team league has produced the past two Class 4A state champions (Apple Valley in 2013 and Lakeville North in 2014).
“We are in a new conference, one of the toughest in the state,” Kugath said. “It’s a conference that is much more physical than our previous conference. We had to change our style of play to be able to compete at this level.”
The Sabers, victors in 13 of their first 18 games, also have had to battle nagging injuries and illness. It has kept their top group from playing and practicing together.
“We’ve played together pretty well so far,” Sabers senior guard Tyler Gaebel said. “We are still learning to trust each other.”
Junior forward Steffon Mitchell (25.4 points per game) has been the main cog in the Sabers’ offensive attack — even as he missed some time because of a sprained ankle.
Only two players have appeared in every game. They are the second- and third-leading scorers — junior guard Booker Coplin (13.3 points) and senior guard Tevin Killeen (12.1 points).
Their biggest loss has been that of returning starting point guard Evan Hagen, a senior. He has been sidelined by an ankle injury and could miss the entire season.
“We’ve all had to step up, and play a bigger role,” said Gaebel, who is averaging 6.8 points. “Our coach is always testing us, too.”
Not just on an individual basis. Kugath likes to provide his players a challenge through a rugged nonconference schedule. This year’s slate included five teams that have been ranked in the Top 10 in either Class 4A or 3A — East Ridge, Eden Prairie, Hopkins, New Prague and Waconia.
“All of that plus a tough nonconference schedule will make us a better team at the end of the season,” Kugath said. “I try to have a tough nonconference schedule to hopefully make us tougher for our conference schedule. Our conference schedule will hopefully make us tougher for sectional play.”