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Boys Basketball: Cats aiming high

Sophomore Zac Johnson hits a layup in the Wildcat boys' basketball team's scrimmage with Prescott Tuesday, Nov. 20. Johnson returns after averaging 12.1 points and eight rebounds per game on his way to earning All-Big Rivers Conference honorable mention as a freshman. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
Six-foot, seven-inch sophomore JT Dougherty (21) hits a reverse layup in the Wildcat boys' basketball team's scrimmage with Prescott Tuesday, Nov. 20. Dougherty and his twin brother, Liam, will bring additional length to the Wildcat frontcourt this season. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 2

How do you replace the two-time All-Big Rivers Conference Player of the Year?

Wildcat head coach Zac Campbell believes he has plenty of options.

"There is certainly optimism heading into our season returning four starters from last year's team," Campbell said. "Filling the void of Jaxon Knotek, who led us in scoring and rebounding each of the past two seasons, will need to be a collective effort."

Knotek has taken his talents to North Dakota State University this season after finishing as the third leading scorer in Wildcat history with 1,136 career points in 73 games. The Wildcats also lost high-energy players Ryan Spafford and Aaron Baillargeon. But the cupboard is hardly bare.

Four starters from last year are back—seniors Adam Feyereisen and Michael Vitt, junior Payton Flood and sophomore Zac Johnson. Johnson averaged 12.1 points and 8 rebounds per game last season while Feyereisen set the school single-season assist record while averaging 6.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Both were All-BRC honorable mention picks a year ago.

Feyereisen, an All-BRC defensive back on the Wildcat football team this past fall, has been hampered by an injury left over from the football season but Campbell said he should be ready to go for the Cats' opener this Friday, Nov. 30, against St. Paul Johnson.

"Having a returning point guard who has the ability to control game flow and defend the oppositions' best players in Adam Feyereisen is invaluable," Campbell said.

Johnson emerged as one of the top three-point shooters in the conference a year ago and Campbell said he has nowhere to go but up.

"Zac Johnson showed the second half of last season the type of offensive ability he possesses," the coach said. "He has worked hard on his offensive game and will be a very tough matchup for opposing teams this season."

Campbell said Vitt, who averaged four points and four rebounds a year ago, has the quickest first step on the team, and his ability to get into the paint should help space the court for the Wildcat shooters, while Flood averaged seven points last season and brings a little bit of everything to the team.

"He's probably the most versatile player we have in that he can defend inside and out as well as work offensively off the bounce and spotting up from the perimeter," Campbell said.

The Cats will also look to senior Taylor Tirrel, coming off an All-BRC First Team football season at punter, to contribute on both ends of the court, and junior Michael Johnson to create some of the energy lost by the graduation of Spafford and Baillargeon.

"Taylor Tirrel is one of our top shooters returning from last year and has turned into a fundamental position defender who has done a really good job of helping teach our younger guys through his years of varsity experience," Campbell noted. "Michael Johnson's energy level, coupled with his advanced athleticism, will provide us with a spark when he's on the floor."

Then there are 6-foot, 7-inch sophomore twins JT and Liam Dougherty, who Campbell said will create a host of match up problems for opposing defenses.

"JT and Liam Dougherty bring a type of length to our team that will present issues for other teams," he said. "They have a great skill set from being able to play inside and out. As with any first-year varsity players, adapting to the speed and strength of the game may take a little time, but we look forward to big things from each of them this season."

Campbell said the Wildcats have prided themselves on defense and expects that to continue this season.

"We return all of our top defenders from our backcourt last season and certainly will rely on them to set the tempo and tone for our team," he noted. "While we have the most length of any team in our conference this year, how we use that length and the physical intelligence that comes along with being a sound defensive team will be important for us to grow throughout the season."

The Cats will be challenged right from the start by facing defending St. Paul City Conference champions St. Paul Johnson and two-time defending BRC champs Eau Claire North in their first two games.

"A great way for us to challenge ourselves right out of the gate against two conference champions," Campbell said. "North has one of the top players in the conference in junior Dalton Banks. He is a Division 1 level collegiate prospect who we will have to work very hard to contain. We will have a size and length advantage that we need to be able to capitalize on as their guard play is very solid."

The coach said if everything comes together, there's no reason the Cats can't contend for the BRC title.

"We have a lot of individual talent that will give us a chance to be competitive at the top of our league," he said. "As always, individuals buying into and excelling in their roles within our team will determine our ceiling. It's exciting to watch their cohesion early on this year and we look forward to representing this community with great pride throughout the winter."

River Falls will kick off the season at home against St. Paul Johnson this Friday, Nov. 30, and host Eau Claire North Tuesday, Dec. 4, at 7:15 p.m. each night.

Bob Burrows

Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.

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