Mustangs boys basketball trying to keep momentum going despite new faces
Kemal Hajric played just four games for the West Fargo Sheyenne boys basketball team before he was sidelined for the rest of the season due to hip surgery. As much as he loved watching his Mustangs go to their first Class A state tournament in program history, Hajric wanted to play with his teammates.
Watching the Mustangs lose to Fargo Davies in the East Region championship hit Hajric the hardest. He wanted to be out there.
The Sheyenne senior center won't be hindered by injury going into the basketball season. Head coach Tom Kirchoffner believes Hajric could be one of the best posts in the Eastern Dakota Conference.
The Mustangs will need him. They lose seven seniors that led Sheyenne's push from the beginning of the program to a state tournament appearance.
"It was exciting to witness that," Hajric said. "But at the same time, just because we were all really tight and a big family, it was tough not being out there and contributing. This year, we're back healthy, and I think I'll be ready to contribute."
For the success Sheyenne has had early on, Kirchoffner believes the Mustangs are ahead of pace of other new schools like Davies and Bismarck Legacy.
"When you get that culture established, it carries over into the next year," Kirchoffner said. "Our guys know what it takes. Everyday in practice, they have to work hard and want it."
The Mustangs return just 16 percent of their team scoring from last year, and almost all of it comes from Christian Kuntz. He's the state's 29th best returning scorer after averaging 8.4 points per game. He's the fifth best returning assist leader with 78 and is the 16th best returning steal leader with 30.
In his four games played, Hajric averaged 11.4 points per game, which puts him 20th among returning scorers in the state, and 6.7 rebounds per game last season, which is eighth among returning players in the state.
The Mustangs lost Carter Bonnema, who graduated as the state's 15th all-time leading rebounder with 469 career rebounds. Hajric will play a similar role to Bonnema this year. By watching on the bench last season, Hajric learned from Bonnema how to play relaxed and under control.
Along with a senior class Kirchoffner and his coaches have been developing for three years, Kirchoffner said plenty of sophomores will get a chance at playing time depending on their performances in practice.
Senior guard Zach Westphal, who committed to the University of Jamestown in the offseason, said last year's seniors set a blueprint for how to make the state tournament.
"I think we'll be able to fill those shoes," Westphal said. "It'll be big shoes to fill. They all played their roles."
While the Mustangs will be bigger at the guard position, they will also be smaller in the frontcourt. The Mustangs will have to play more uptempo, and Kirchoffner will be pushing the Mustangs to shoot as many 3-pointers as possible. Sheyenne went from about 400 shots from beyond the arc two seasons ago to about 600 last year, but Kirchoffner believes he has enough talented shooters to keep that number high again this year if they compliment the shooting with defense and rebounding.
Hajric believes he could've helped Bonnema with rebounding and defense last season. He said he'll have take on those responsibilities as well as control the paint and bring energy. The ultimate goal, Hajric said, is winning a state championship.
"It will be nice for us to start fresh," Hajric said. "Nobody really has any expectations for us right now, but I think we'll definitely show people something they didn't expect."
West Fargo Sheyenne Mustangs boys basketball
Coach: Tom Kirchoffner (fourth year)
Last year's finish: 17-10 record, sixth place at Class A state tournament
Who's gone: Carter Bonnema, Chase Erickson, Collin Trottier, Josh Thiele, Isaac Stormon, Dawson Anderson, Hayden Reynolds.
Key returners: Christian Kuntz, Jr., G; Kemal Hajric, Sr., C; Zach Westphal, Sr., G; Elijah Charles, Sr., F; Keaton Ballestad, Sr. G.